Solanco is rebuilding its boys basketball program one grade level at a time with the Junior High varsity team leading the way.
The Mules' squad finished the year with a 13-5 record after defeating Pequea Valley 39-14 in the season finale Tuesday, February 4.
"This group has a good bond with each other," coach Jason Sperry said. "They play well together. They play hard. They put a lot of time in during the last few offseasons to develop their skill work."
That bond extends to the relationship between the coach and his players. "Quite a few of these guys I've had for three years now," said Sperry. "This group of kids is the first class where we had a seventh grade team. At that time, we did not have an actual seventh grade coach so I coached the seventh graders and the eighth graders. We started that way then we had a big offseason. Last year we kind of really hit our stride during the second half of their eighth grade year. We've spent a lot of time together."
Junior High varsity rosters can be comprised of eighth and ninth graders. Solanco elected to keep its freshman class together with the exception of ninth grader Tyler Burger, who made the varsity roster and started several games at the highest level. There were no freshmen on the JV roster.
"It's been a deliberate thing," said Sperry. "I really appreciate (varsity) Coach Dave Long allowing us to do that. We wanted to try to keep these groups together and start having strong classes and have that camaraderie and experience on the floor together. I feel like you see that not only with the ninth graders but also with the eighth graders and the improvements they've made. We're trying to start stacking classes on top of each other. Obviously then all those classes will make their way up to the varsity."
Solanco's Junior High varsity team was comprised of freshmen Aden Herr, Yamir Marquez, Noah Baber, Josiah Forren, Jadon Yoder, John Sankus, Riley Ford, Manny Himes, Elijah Cunningham, Taivon Murphy, and Ayden Maggs.
"These kids have done a great job of improving from year to year," Sperry said. "When I say that I don't necessarily mean during the basketball season. Usually by the end of February we'll start up again two days a week. We'll do all skill work, shooting, passing, ball handling. We'll go from February usually until the end of May. Then we take about 10 days off. Then we do the whole summer. We take about 10 days off. Then we pick up again in September until the season. We take about 10 days off before the season. In a given summer, guys will have 20, 30, sometimes 40 offseason workouts. That has been what has caused this group to really improve along the way."
They won't all be teammates during games next season, but Sperry says the cohesiveness will continue. "They'll all practice together," he said. "Some will play JV and some will play varsity and some of them will play both, but every day they'll be in the practice gym together. I think that matters."
Solanco's Junior High JV team – all eighth graders – also enjoyed a successful season and finished with a 10-6 record.
Coach Brandon Smith's squad was made up of Austin Wenger, Brock Osborne, Adolfo Bedolla, Gavin Cox, Trey Riley, Chase Soto, Landon Steele, Donovan Peters, Brayden Herr, Bradley Weder, Trevor Masterson, and Tyler Randall.
"I love to see fifth grade travel team kids, sixth grade travel team kids, elementary school kids come to watch us and see us win," said Sperry. "I feel that creates a mentality and plants a seed in people's mind that they feel like when they get here they're going to win. I feel the full effect of this group coming through, we won't really know what that is for a while. But I think you see it a little bit in what's happening in [the old gym] with the eighth graders and the success they're starting to have. Our seventh grade group watches that every day and sees. We're trying to develop a culture where people get used to having success and get used to winning. We're developing the skill levels. I can't wait to sit in the bleachers and have a pretzel and a hot dog and watch these guys. I'll be their number one fan."
It won't be long before the Junior High players are contributing at the high school varsity level. "They will bring a level of toughness," David Long said. "Not in terms of getting into a fight or anything like that, but toughness like if somebody scores on me, I'm not going to get away and go into a shell. I was watching Riley Ford a couple weeks ago. A kid hit a tough shot in his face, and looked at him and yelled, 'And 1!' Instead of being intimidated, Riley ignored it and came down and hit a three in that kid's face, but didn't say anything back to him and went back to play defense. I think they have a level of skill that's exciting. They have a lot of guys who can handle the ball, a lot of guys who can score around the rim. They're raw, but they're a very talented group. If they keep working they have a chance to be successful, even as early as next year depending on how dedicated they are this offseason."