CLARION — Veteran Elk County Catholic head coach Aaron Straub saw some of the good, and also some of the bad, from his team Tuesday night against North Clarion in the District 9 Class A semifinals at Clarion University’s Tippin Gymnasium.
Fortunately for Straub and ECC, the good far outweighed the bad in a lopsided 58-29 win over the Wolves that earned the Crusaders their second trip in three years to the district championship game.
Elk County (25-0), the defending D-9 Class A champs, will defend that crown Saturday against a familar foe in Johnsonburg.
The seventh-seeded Rams staged a thrilling comeback in Tuesday’s other semifinal contest,. Johnsonburg rallied from a 15-point deficit (47-32) after three quarters to pull out a late 51-50 victory over third-seeded Otto-Eldred to reach its first title game since 2013. The Rams won the D-9 title that season during its run to the state finals.
As for ECC’s win Tuesday, the Crusaders used a smothering defense and good shooting to offset 14-plus turnovers and what Straub said he felt was a little too much individual play at time by his players. Elk County held the Wolves (14-10) to single-digit scoring in all four quarters.
“First off, it was a good win,” said Straub. “North Clarion played really hard, and they are putting some good athletes on the floor. They’re young, and that’s going to be a really good team next year.
“I don’t know what was up with us. We missed three layups at the start and went 1-for-4 at foul line 9in 1st quarter). What I told the kids after the game, I thought we tried individually to do too much. We didn’t play well as a team until a couple possessions in the second half where we moved the ball around and got the ball inside and out.
“Other than that, we just had too much dribble and not enough playing together. And, it wasn’t a selfish not playing together, it was just people thought that’s what they needed to do. We’re not very good when we play like that.
“But, we shot it okay and made a couple 3-pointers, and when we made a couple 3-pointers back-to-back we were able to get some separation. If we don’t shoot the ball well, that’s a close game all the way through.”
Elk County’s win was fueled by the senior duo of Nate DaCanal and Gane Kraus. DaCanal posted a double-double on the night as he scored a game-high 20 points to go along with 12 rebounds. Kraus finished with 14 points, while junior Ryan Newton and senior Dan Stauffer added nine and seven points, respectively.
The Crusaders came out strong, scoring the game’s first seven points. DaCanal netted four of those, with his second basket of the game putting ECC up 7-0 at the 4:36 mark of the opening quarter.
North Clarion promptly stormed back, as a couple ECC turnvoers helped the Wolves put together a 7-0 run on their own. Nathan Banner scored five of their seven points, with his 3-pointer tying the game at 7-7 with 1:32 left in the quarter.
DaCanal countered with back-to-back baskets in the final minute — the first coming off a nice slip pass from Stauffer and the second on a putback — to give ECC an 11-7 lead. DaCanal had eight of his 20 points in the first quarter.
Banner scored in the closing seconds to make it 11-9 after one quarter. Banner led North Clarion with 11 points.
Elk County wasted little time seizing control of the game at the start of the second quarter.
DaCanal scored on a putback 41 seconds in, then Kraus and Stauffer hit back-to-back 3-pointers off a pair of North Clarion turnovers. Another quick score by Stauffer inside capped a fast 10-0 spurt by the Crusaders that gave them a 21-9 advantage.
A bucket by Sam Minich momentarily slowed the Crusaders, but two straight hoops by DaCanal and another trey from Kraus finished off a 17-2 run in the quarter that put ECC 28-11 with 2:44 left in the half.
The teams traded scores from there, with ECC eventually taking a 30-16 lead into halftime. The Crusaders outscored the Wolves, 19-7, in the quarter. Kraus scored eight of his 14 points in the second quarter.
Elk County carried that momentum over into the third and used a 6-2 spurt to open the third to push its lead to 18 points at 36-18. at the 4:24 mark.
The teams then traded scores from there. Newton scored eight of his nine points in the quarter to help ECC build a 41-22 lead after three quarters.
The Crusaders then iced the victory with a 13-3 run to open the fourth quarter.
Kraus had five points in the run, while DaCanal and Stauffer each scored four. Teammate Logan Hoffman capped the spurt with a basket of his own put ECC up 54-25 with 3:49 to play.
Elk County maintained that 29-point advantage by game’s end, as Hoffman and Erick Mader each scored hoops in the final three minutes to help set the final at 58-29.
As for the finals matchup with Johnsonburg, Straub said there are no secrets between the two county foes.
“Johnsonburg has to feel they are a team of destiny winning that game tonight (vs. Otto),” said Straub. “They came back from a long way back. Johnsonburg is well-coached and they’re very athletic and they play hard.
“There’s no secrets when we play them. They know us as well as we know them. We’re going to have to play very well. It’s tough to play a team three times and it’s doubly tough to play a team four times, and I think that’s what we will have seen them.
“Johnsonburg is very deceiving because they have played the best, or one of the best, schedules in the district. You can’t look at their record. You have to look at how hard the play and look at how well they have been playing lately.”
Saturday’s championship game will be at Clarion University at a time to be determined.