By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
SALEM -- Rest, Springfield. Rest. You have the coveted prize you longed for -- a district championship.
In one night of raw emotion, 34 years of frustration were erased.
In the waning seconds of Springfield's 53-38 victory over St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday, a banner rose from several rows behind the Tigers' bench.
"The jinx is over!"
"Our kids lived with that every day," Springfield coach Jeff Brink said. "They know that pressure."
Not since 1969 had a Springfield boys basketball team won a district title. In the years since, whatever could go wrong, did, preventing the Tigers from moving on.
"Out of all the great teams that have gone through Springfield, there's always been something that happened in Salem," senior Dan Schuler said. "For us to be able to get through all that, it's just a blessing from God."
Following in the footsteps of every missed opportunity was the 2002-03 team, one with height, balance, patience and the ability to score inside and out. In the end, it was enough to erase a haunting past.
"Ever since we were kids, our class has been tight and we've been together all the time," senior Jonathan Vivo said. "We had a pact that we were going to get out of Salem, and we did."
When the Division III district championship trophy was presented, Brink clutched it with both hands and pumped it several times toward cheering fans.
From the beginning, it was Springfield's night. The Salem High gymnasium was filled with Tiger supporters, many wearing the black clothing of their team's coaching staff, and easily outnumbering those from St. Thomas Aquinas.
Brink, whose face was planted on posters in the student section, pranced around the gymnasium during his team's shoot-around, an intense gleam in his eyes. He thrust his arms, chest-bumped players and fans and yelled encouraging words.
Then, once the game began, Springfield senior Dave Rispinto sent the opening message -- a 3-pointer from the top that rimmed in.
"Rispinto coming out and hitting that shot at the beginning of the game got us going," Schuler said.
The Tigers (22-1) made their first three shots and, combined with Schuler's two free throws, led 9-0 with 5 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
"Our kids believe they can play with anybody and they have the talent to get it done," Brink said. "We were very confident coming in here."
They went on to dominate St. Thomas Aquinas (15-8) and earn a berth in Wednesday's regional semifinal in Canton against the winner of today's Bedford Chanel-Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph game.
"Everybody talks about the schedule [St. Thomas Aquinas] played," Brink said. "People forget, it doesn't matter who we're playing, we have some kids who can play."
Springfield's zone defense suffocated the Knights and prevented their athletic players from driving freely toward the basket and getting open shots.
"They pushed everything out," St. Thomas Aquinas coach Dave Waseity said. "They matched up to our guards and played defense. If you don't get the ball inside, you're not going to get good looks."
Springfield built its lead to 26-15 at halftime and led comfortably throughout the third quarter, which ended in dramatic style.
Vivo shook free of defenders and launched a 3-pointer that fell through at the buzzer, giving the Tigers a 39-24 lead that carried them to the end.
"As soon as the ball was halfway to the hoop, I saw it was going in," Schuler said. "That was huge."
Schuler led the Tigers with 15 points, while Rispinto added 11. St. Thomas Aquinas freshman standout Ricky Jackson had 13 points.
"They had a lot of pressure on them," Waseity said of Springfield. "Our goal was to keep it close and get it down to the end and hope the pressure would get to them a little more."
But it didn't happen. Not Friday. Finally, it was Springfield's turn.