Girard alumni remember state title run

Keith Swan can still remember walking into a sporting goods store in Columbus almost 20 years ago.

It was the eve of the 1993 Division II state basketball championship game. Swan and his Girard Indians teammates decided to check out the store after eating dinner. What they heard once inside was all they needed to set in motion the memorable events that would follow the next day.

“The guy that owned it recognized us and said that we were playing Columbus Whitehall-Yearling,” Swan said. “He said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to beat them.’ “

Those were the ultimate fighting words for the underdog Indians. You didn’t tell them they “couldn’t” do something. That message was delivered when they weren’t seeded in the district tournament, and they spent the next month knocking down wall after wall.

“When we were going through the tournaments we kept hearing our coaches talk about players we were facing that were going to Ohio State or Louisville,” Nick D’Eramo said. “I don’t think any of us got it. We were having this good run, so let’s have fun.”

Call it blind ambition or youthful exuberance gone wild. Whatever it was, the Indians put together a remarkable tournament run to claim the first and only state championship by a Trumbull County boys’ team. The crowning moment came with a 64-57 win over Yearling, which was led by 6-9 Louisville recruit Samaki Walker.

Winning the title ended a remarkable season that began with a 1-3 start and included three more losses in the regular season. There was a 70-69 double-overtime win over Canfield in the district semifinals and a 60-58 win over Ursuline in the district final.

The regional and state tournaments presented challenges against teams with more height and superior top-level talent. To this day it’s still difficult to believe the streak of wins over Twinsburg Chamberlin, Cleveland St. Joseph’s, Kettering Alter and Yearling from the regional level through the state title game.

“We had a brutal road,” coach Bob Krizancic said. “The thing I’m most proud of is we earned it. We had some close games. The teams we beat were some of the best in the history of the state. It was a great run that was like a fairy tale.”

The state championship game might have best exemplified the Indians’ will to overcome odds. In this case the biggest roadblock was Walker, who had a 10-year NBA career and a 2002 championship to his credit with the Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe the owner of the sporting goods store had it right the night before.

The Indians trailed throughout much of the game before gaining the upper hand. Down the stretch their defense came up big, including a crucial steal of Walker by Kris Kelly.

Kelly, an inside player that seldom attempted 3-point shots, provided an unlikely offensive source by making two 3-pointers. As became the custom, the main point contributor was slick guard Philip Huyler, who led all scorers with 34 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field.

Huyler developed into a central figure after transferring into the school district from the Bahamas. He wasn’t cleared to play until the beginning of 1993. By then the Indians had lost four games.

Once Huyler entered the equation, a close team that played well together and made few mistakes became even better.

“Without a doubt he was a piece to the puzzle,” assistant coach Bryan O’Hara said. “Look at some of those games. D’Eramo (making the final shot) against Canfield and Swan (making two free throws late) against Ursuline. What’s a team composed of? Everyone has a different role. Sometimes you’re the motor and someone else might be a lug nut. What’s a car without a lug nut?”

There was a clear definition of roles with working parts that meshed together better as the season progressed. Huyler was the scorer. Kelly, Swan, Brad Root, D’Eramo and Alrashan Clardy each contributed in various ways to make it all work.

Krizancic knew the margin for error was small against bigger, more-skilled teams. There was a premium placed on not making mistakes, which usually proved to be an equalizer.

“Look at state,” Krizancic said. “We outrebounded the other teams, and we played smart basketball. There were some games when we had just five or six turnovers. Every single young man held his composure in close games.”

Like all successful teams, the Indians had a work ethic that was second to none. Nick Cochran, who had just finished his football career at Youngstown State University, occasionally brought some of his football friends to practice against the Indians.

“We were probably in the best shape of any team in the district, and probably the state,” Swan said. “We worked hard. Coach Cochran would bring in some of his buddies, and they beat us up pretty good.”

The Indians needed the tough-love approach to deal with the brutal tournament run. The first two rounds resulted in easy wins over Rayen (70-53) and Struthers (75-55). Up next was Canfield, which defeated Girard by 22 points in the regular season.

D’Eramo remembers his heroic effort in the second overtime for more than just the win.

“My father passed away when I was young,” D’Eramo said. “After the buzzer sounded that was the first thing that came to my mind. You always wanted your dad to be there to give you a hug. My mom was there. She knew what was going on in my head. It was nice because she was standing there waiting for me.”

The win over Ursuline could have made any Girard fan think that destiny was on the side of the Indians. The game was scheduled for a Saturday, but a blizzard moved it back two days.

“Of course, we needed a little luck,” O’Hara said. “Kelly went down with an ankle injury against Canfield on Thursday. When we had the blizzard it gave Kelly a couple extra days to heal. Having Kris at 97 percent instead of 70 to 80 percent gave us a better chance.”

The regional might have presented the Indians with their stiffest challenges. Twinsburg had Division I talents in James Posey and Mark Hunte, who scored 32 points in a 72-66 loss. Posey had a 13-year career in the NBA.

Huyler scored 25 points as Girard rallied from a 10-point deficit. Next up was St. Joseph’s, which had a stacked roster that included current NFL linebacker London Fletcher and Brian Hocevar, who played at UNLV and Cleveland State.

The Indians won the regional crown with a surprisingly easy 78-57 win. Huyler had 29 points and D’Eramo scored 22.

Kettering Alter fell in the state semifinals by another surprising score (77-68). Huyler scored 22 points. Swan had 15, D’Eramo added 14 and Kelly finished a balanced attack with 10.

Walker put up 24 points in the state title game, but it was no match for Huyler’s remarkable play.

“Once we beat Ursuline we thought something special could happen,” Cochran said. “We beat some names. Our kids played tougher. We talked about family and work ethic. There was no exceptional player, but we had five very good players.”

Most of the players have re-located outside of the area. Krizancic accepted the coaching job at Mentor the next season and is still there. O’Hara became the coach at Liberty and later coached at Girard. Cochran coaches Girard’s football team after a stint with the basketball team.

While the paths all have followed in the last 20 years are wide and varied, there’s a common bond that will link them forever. Kelly designed rings for each team member to commemorate that magical time. An engraving reads: “Together 22-6.”

“Going to state in Mentor with my son Cole would be right up there. That’s a very close second,” Krizancic said of Girard’s run. “The only time I wear the ring is for our games. It reminds me where we want to get at. That (engraving) epitomizes the way we won it.”

Together the Indians made history.