Graham Foley (@graham_foley3)
Bayard Rustin High School head coach Keith Cochran signs off his texts to his team the same way every day, whether it be after practice, a film session or a general message.
“Let’s grow together.”
It’s a fitting mantra for a team with talent and experience from a successful campaign last year but still plenty of youth. Rustin starts just one senior, a sophomore and three juniors.
“It’s awesome,” Cochran said. “Just to see them grow and know that every day in practice and every game they’re growing and only getting better.”
But it’s also fitting for a team trying to improve upon last year, when the Golden Knights played a great regular season but folded in crunch time.
Rustin went 17-10 in 2016-17 and made the Ches-Mont Final Four before losing in the semi-final to Coatesville. In the District 1 5A playoffs, the Golden Knights fell to Bishop Shanahan and Chester, eliminating them from the state tournament.
The sudden ending of what was a successful regular season left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Golden Knights and provided motivation to go further this season.
“When you as a coach feel like you left something out there in the season, it always bothers you,” Cochran said. “You just try to look back and see ways you can get better so you don’t make the same mistakes. And these kids get what our goals are and we’re just trying to get better as a team.”
Tuesday night’s 67-51 victory over West Chester Henderson showed that the Golden Knights (5-3, 3-0 Ches-Mont) have the talent to get back to the Ches-Mont Final Four and try to go further than last season.
Senior Bryce Barrouk, who led Rustin with 24 points and shot 5-of-9 from beyond the arc on Tuesday, is one of the key pieces for the Knights. The 6-1 shooting guard is the only senior in the starting lineup.
Barrouk was a major contributor last season as a junior and wants to use that experience to guide his team in important games down the stretch.
“At the end of the season last year we were all really upset with how it turned out,” Barrouk said. “But we got tougher from it and we need to keep getting tougher this season. We have to play our best and toughest basketball at the end of the season.”
“He’s been a big help for us as far as being a senior and leading the way for these younger guys,” Cochran said. “He leads more by example. He does things the right way and that’s good to have from a senior.”
Barrouk is one of several dynamic players back this season.
Junior Tajir Asparagus, a 6-4, 162 forward, was one of the main offensive leaders for Rustin last season. This year, he comes off the bench in a strategic move by Cochran.
“It gives the team some energy,” Cochran said. “Asparagus is a very smart kid with a great IQ and having someone to come off the bench to see things in the game and can pick them up quickly, whether you’re down or you’re up it helps stabilize things.”
“A lot of kids would be disappointed that they’re not a starter but Asparagus just takes it as it is,” Cochran added. “He lets me coach him, he doesn’t complain or say one word back and and that’s refreshing for a kid with his ability.”
Asparagus finished with 18 points and four rebounds on Tuesday and had two momentum-changing thrifty layups in which he drew a foul and made the basket. He said he doesn’t mind coming off the bench and providing his team with a spark.
“I like it, it makes my drive tougher,” Asparagus said. “And my team is able to get the ball to me in different places. We are making great plays, getting good rebounds and making shots.”
Junior Jake Nelson also was an offensive leader for Rustin last year as a sophomore. He scored 14 points on Tuesday night, 12 of which came in the first half, and finished with five assists and six rebounds.
A new player to the starting lineup is sophomore Bryce Pew. The 6-1 point guard played nearly the entire game Tuesday before fouling out with less than two minutes left. He finished with four points, eight assists and five rebounds.
“As a first year starter, he gets us in and out of our sets, he knows the offense well, he knows where guys are and where they need to be and gives them the ball in the right situation,” Cochran said. “Once he starts getting aggressive and looking at the basket, he’s really going to be a special kid.”
Finishing out the starting lineup are two more juniors who are seeing more playing time than last year. Dylan DeMarco, a 6-2 strong forward, grabbed with six rebounds and had three assists on Tuesday. Jack Batchelor, a 6-4 forward/center finished with four points, four rebounds and a couple of blocks.
With an undefeated division record, Rustin currently sits at the top of the Ches-Mont American division above Great Valley, Octorara and Unionville who each have one division loss. The Golden Knights will play Great Valley on Thursday before taking on Academy Park on Saturday in a non-league matchup.
With a lineup mixed with new starters and players who experienced last season’s ride, the Knights are hoping to build upon a successful start and use last year as a guide to this season’s finish.
“I think it does give them a lot of motivation,” Cochran said. “We can get better, we left a lot out there last year, and we’re seeing things where guys are getting better. And that’s the exciting part of this team, we can really grow up to be a really good team.”