The above video is from WKBN’s highlights of Girard’s state semifinal and championship win in 1993.
GIRARD, Ohio (WKBN) – Thirty years ago, Girard completed their improbable run to capture the boys’ basketball state championship and captivate an entire town in the process.
Many compared their journey to the movie “Hoosiers.” From posting a 1-3 record to being unseeded when the playoffs began, the Indians marched their way to Columbus, still unmatched as the only boys’ team from Trumbull County to accomplish such a feat.
This is the story of a coach who had a vision and a roster of resilient, determined individuals that became household names within the city limits.
I. Krizancic’s vision shaped the culture
A standout basketball player for Girard and Youngstown State University, Bob Krizancic always had a passion for the instruction of the game.
“When I was at YSU, we’d go away to camps and work with these kids. I really liked it,” Krizancic recalled. “My senior year, Girard’s recreation director, Marty Cerny, gave me the opportunity to set up a feeder program for fourth through sixth grade kids in the city called the ‘Big 10.’ I’d organize the practice schedule, game schedule. I [arranged] it so each player had to touch the ball; they’d play man-to-man defense.”
Five years later, at the age of 25, Krizancic was hired to take over his alma mater’s basketball program.
“Talk about timing, I was now able to get those kids as freshmen and sophomores [in] my first year,” he said.
The 1980-81 season won’t evoke memories of dazzling play by the Indians but will be remembered for what took place behind the scenes.
“I cut 10 seniors [from the team] — anyone who wasn’t willing to work hard, I eliminated. That was our identity,” Krizancic said.
“We finished 1-20 that year,” said Bryan O’Hara, a 1981 graduate. “We only had two seniors on that team – me and Bobby Johnson. Our practices were very competitive. It was a shift in mindset.”
When the former All-Steel Valley point guard took over, Girard hadn’t won a district championship in nearly 30 years.
“Girard was coming off of a number of losing seasons,” Krizancic said. “[Prospects] weren’t great, however, my expectations were to win a state championship one day.”
In Krizancic’s third season, Girard was competing at a high level as they closed out the campaign with the league crown. Three years later, the Indians broke through to win the district championship. Fast forward to 1988, Girard finished one-win shy of their first final-four appearance since 1953.
When putting together his staff, Krizancic was looking for a certain trait in his assistants.
“He always kept people of character [within the program]. People who not only knew the game but understood people as well,” O’Hara said.
“Bryan had such a great work ethic,” Krizancic remembered. “I was always impressed by the way he handled himself. We needed a JV coach; he knew exactly what the program was all about.”
During the summer of 1992, Krizancic served as an assistant under Floyd Kerr on the coaching staff of the WBL’s Youngstown Pride.
“I was in line to take on the expansion Montreal [head coaching] job,” Krizancic remarked. “In June, things weren’t going well. Phar-Mor was going under. The league folded. I was devastated. It took me about two weeks to shake it off. From that point on, I dug in, and we never worked so hard.”
Kerr joined Krizancic on his staff at Girard. In the fall, former Indian great Nick Cochran was finishing his collegiate career as YSU’s quarterback. He led the Penguins to the national championship game against Marshall. Just before Christmas, Cochran joined the Indians’ basketball staff.
“Getting Nick on board was huge,” Krizancic said. “The kids looked up to him so much.”
Nick’s older brother Mike, who starred as a linebacker for the Penguins in the mid-1980s, assisted as the freshmen coach.
Nick and Mike’s father, Joe Cochran, was more than the principal. For 24 years, he was the representation of the school for an entire generation of students.
“He and his wife were so special to Girard,” Krizancic said. “They were very special to me. I played Pinochle with them every Thursday before game day.”
Girard’s coaches held their players accountable.
“If you didn’t touch a line while running sprints, Coach O’Hara would make you run [again]. Miss a layup during warmups, that would count as a run. Every player had to prove themselves each day at practice. No one got a free pass,” said Indians’ senior center Kris Kelly.
II. Missing piece to the puzzle
Through the foreign exchange program, Philip Huyler left the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of The Bahamas in 1991 to further his education in Ohio.
“In the islands, we don’t have the major universities,” said Huyler. “At my [high] school, they didn’t have a 12th grade, so I was looking for an opportunity to go to college.”
Playing organized basketball was uncommon in The Bahamas.
“We’d play pickup basketball,” Huyler said. “My good friend reminds me that I didn’t know where to line up for free throws. He had to [teach] me. We didn’t have a basketball team at my school. I didn’t play on an [organized] team until I was about 13 or 14. Coach [Godfrey] McQuay gave us a chance by coaching [a group of us] during the summer.”
The thought of living where it snowed was enticing to the teenager.
“I was told of these snowball fights and making snow angels on the ground. After three weeks of being in Ohio with the cold, I was thinking of going back,” joked Huyler.
As a junior, Huyler was declared ineligible due to his academic transcripts.
“Sitting out that year, I was devastated. I was unable to practice with the team. I felt isolated. I’d call my father and say, ‘I want to come home’. He’d tell me, ‘You’d like to go to college one day, right?’”
Huyler received the type of support from a number of individuals who made the transition comfortable.
“Without Mr. [Alphonso] Kelley and Ms. [Laverne] Beachum, [along with] coach McQuay, I wouldn’t be here. They loved me and took care of me as if I was one of their own,” he said.
Girard faced another hurdle. This time, it was a numbers game as the maximum number of boys in grades 10th through 12th was 220 to be slotted into Division 3. The Indians featured 221 boys, making them the smallest school in Division 2.
Entering the 1992-93 season, Huyler was still ineligible, but Girard returned a core group of seniors led by Nick D’Eramo, Keith Swan, Brad Root and Kelly — the Indians’ quarterback on the gridiron.
“Kris was the glue to that team,” Krizancic said. “He came back from a broken hand and a torn ACL in football. That just tells you how tough he was. He held the locker room together.”
D’Eramo said, “Kris was a born leader. He did everything for us — scoring, rebounding, [came up big] defensively, and he’d make those hustle plays.”
Beginning in the fourth grade, Root served as a ball boy for the program.
“I grew up in the gym,” said Root. “I knew the system and the toughness that was required. I always had that desire to play basketball.”
Girard opened the new campaign by winning just once in their first four outings.
Shortly afterward, Huyler received clearance to begin playing for Krizancic’s Indians.
When it came to the fact that Girard and Campbell had landed a pair of players from The Bahamas, the local media outlets didn’t backpedal.
“We talked to the superintendents to get as much information as we could,” WYTV sportscaster Bob Hannon said. “We didn’t back down from covering it. Some coaches would call me and say that this isn’t right – these kids were brought here specifically for [athletics].”
“We played in his absence as if it was an injury,” said Krizancic. “When he was cleared, it probably took him about seven to 10 games to learn the system.”
“Phil fit perfectly,” Hannon recalled. “He ran that offense flawlessly.”
Prior to Huyler’s arrival on the active roster, Root was the team’s starting point guard.
“There could have been animosity from Brad,” Huyler said. “There was none of that. Brad was focused on winning. I stepped in and he moved to an [off-guard] position. We were quite the duo [in the backcourt]. He was a great defender.”
Root understood how this change would help the team achieve more success.
“I always was one to be a team player. I was a captain, so I never would’ve allowed this [to become a distraction]. It was actually a relief to take some of the pressure off of myself,” he said.
O’Hara recalled, “Our rotations were limited to maybe five to seven players. Those [other guys] played an important role by impacting the team at practice, making us better.”
Junior reserve post player Jim Schubert pointed out, “Our job was to prepare the starters for the game. It was physical; it got chippy at times.”
Practices weren’t for the faint of heart.
“We’d finish the last 30 to 35 minutes putting our kids through four stations,” Krizancic said. “They’d [dribble] full court against Mike Cochran. They’d go one-on-one in the paint against Nick Cochran. Then, they’d work with Dick Hartzell’s flex bands and finish up with 45 seconds of working on a punching bag.”
Sophomore Beep Clardy described Nick Cochran as being extremely physical.
“Nick was like Bill Laimbeer; he’d rough you up. One time, we got him with [an elbow]. He had blood dripping down his forehead. He wiped it off and kept going,” he said.
“Every now and then, Nick [Cochran] would bring his YSU football buddies in to scrimmage us. They were big, intimidating dudes. They’d beat us up,” D’Eramo said.
Schubert went on to say, “We ran the hills at Liberty Park with weighted [vests] on. They would hit us with baseball bats wrapped in Styrofoam when we’d come in for a layup. I think coach O [‘Hara] would be locked up if he tried those types of things today.”
“[Krizancic] was intimidating, rarely cracked a smile,” Schubert’s classmate Robert Napier recalled. “You needed to have a certain resolve, fight in you to become great. His staff echoed [that same] energy.”
Despite achieving a 12-5 record, Girard went unseeded in the district tournament.
“Folks didn’t respect us after game No. 17,” said Krizancic.
Playing in the Mahoning Valley Conference at that time, the Canfield Cardinals were the gold standard. Canfield had competed in the regionals in two of the previous three years.
“Canfield was always the very best in the conference,” Kelly said.
“They were like a machine,” added D’Eramo.
“They were so well-coached by John Cullen,” remarked O’Hara. “Canfield wasn’t going to beat themselves. During that era under Bobby [Krizancic], our rivalry with Canfield was something.”
The Cardinals handed Girard a 22-point setback (75-53) earlier in the season.
In mid-February, the league title was on the line. For Canfield, they were after an outright championship. Girard was seeking a share of their first title in five years.
“For us, playing sports, we never won a conference championship. We had our chance here,” Kelly said.
“We were locked in,” recalled D’Eramo. “We knew what was at stake.”
Cullen mentioned, “We played Girard three times that year. The first, [the officials] called [Huyler] for five charges. The second time, they called us for five blocks.”
Girard topped Canfield, 54-46, in front of their home crowd to claim a share of the league championship.
“That win over Canfield was a major step in building our confidence,” D’Eramo said.
“[Philip] was [one of] the best guards I coached against at Canfield,” said Cullen. “He was the difference maker, the key to that team’s success.”
Krizancic noticed a contrast in his team, “Our seniors believed we could do it. Each game we won; you could see that we were [playing with] more confidence. It was the perfect storm with Philip coming on board.”
Entering the final game of the regular season, three players [Kelly, Schubert and Mike Thomas] were late to board the bus.
“So, we left them,” Krizancic grumbled. “We get [to Champion High School], they’re there. I’m [upset]. I don’t say anything to them. I made up my mind that they’re not playing. We lost 84-77. After that, no one was late. They focused on the attention to detail. You gamble as a head coach sometimes; that decision paid off.”
III. Whitehall’s rise to prominence; similar to Girard
One hundred and seventy-five miles southwest of Girard sits Whitehall Yearling High School, an institution that wasn’t known for much basketball tradition at the time.
Mike Dixon grew up as a Whitehall Ram. He coached the junior high basketball team into a consistent winner. The varsity program had registered an overall record of 9-96 prior to Dixon’s appointment as the varsity coach.
Jimmy Lupton described Dixon as being, “Hard-nosed, a Bobby Knight-type coach.”
Lupton’s classmate Gary Hankins agreed, “Coach was intense, he had very high expectations for us as a group.”
The fire inside Dixon was sparked by seeing his players prosper.
“I consider coach a second father to me,” said point guard Rob Burns. “He’s one of the greatest people I know.”
Lupton concurred, “I don’t think I would’ve succeeded as a basketball player like I did without him.”
Coming into the 1992-93 campaign, the Rams returned five seniors. Despite being competitive and talented, Whitehall wasn’t considered to be a team that would contend for the state championship.
“The thought was to compete for a league title and hopefully play into the districts,” said Hankins.
Whitehall opened the season by topping former state champion and rival Bexley, 80-60. After the game, excited by the accomplishment, his players asked Dixon what he’d do if they won state.
“I told them I’d shave my head,” Dixon said.
Three days later, the prospects for the current season improved.
“I was told we had a new student in school. His dad just moved into [the district], and I’d probably want to meet him,” Dixon recalled. “So, I’m thinking we have our team set. Then, I saw this six-foot-nine kid named Samaki Walker. I think to myself, this adds to the puzzle.”
“I was blessed with athleticism,” said Walker. “I had a clear advantage [with my height]. I had a lot of raw ability, but I learned how to play basketball at Whitehall. [Dixon] was really good at teaching the fundamentals of the game.”
Burns said, “The main unknown was how was this going to work. We were used to everyone; we had played together for so long. It was like introducing a new family member to the team — how will this fit?”
Walker didn’t start right away as Dixon noted that he had to earn his playing time just like everyone else. However, it was apparent that the excitement surrounding this team was building.
“The expectations and style of play changed. We’re thinking about a state championship now,” Hankins said.
The strong leadership from their coach and upperclassmen acted as a compass to their success throughout the season.
“We’d push ourselves every single day,” Burns recounted. “Coach’s preparation was what really set us apart.”
“Our practices were intense,” Walker said. “Some of the toughest that I had experienced [over my career]. Coach was very detailed in [what] he taught us.”
In the Rams’ lone loss that season, it was quite apparent who the boss was.
“[Dixon] stressed fundamentals,” said Lupton. “If you got into trouble, you didn’t play.”
“We had study table,” said Dixon. “The kids had to show up for that each week.”
Walker missed the study session so he couldn’t play.
“If coach had not made that decision, he would’ve lost a ton of respect,” Burns said. “He treated everyone the same, no matter if you were a freshman or a senior.”
“Two things I’m most proud of: I had a genuine love for those kids. I didn’t put up with nonsense. Kids want that discipline; you have to be consistent,” Dixon said. “Four of my players are going to be my pallbearers. Secondly, in my five years at Whitehall, of the 60 kids in the program, not one was ever ineligible due to academics.”
The Rams won their first league championship in 11 years.
In the Regional Semifinal round, Miami Trace almost eliminated Whitehall.
“We were down 23-2 after the first quarter,” Dixon said. “They hadn’t been to the regionals; they were nervous. I said, ‘We’re better than this. We’ve dug ourselves a hole. We have to cut this lead down to single digits by halftime.’”
“I was fouled on a three-point shot at the buzzer,” Lupton remembered. “I was the only player on the court, I made all three. As I’m running back, Samaki’s waiting for me. I say, ‘We can play a two-man game, kick it out to me when they double [you].'”
Hankins remembered, “Lupton caught fire. That got us back into the game.”
“They didn’t guard me, so I connected on 5 or 6 three-point shots in the second half,” said Lupton. “It was my career night. That [50-49] win over Trace brought back the fight to us.”
“If our shooters could get off to a good start,” Hankins said, “We felt we could play with anyone. Samaki was there to clean things up.”
In the Athens Regional Final, the Rams got by Washington High School (67-52) to make their first trip to the state tournament.
Walker said, “It was pure magic. We all shared one vision. Each of us put our egos aside to make a great run. [Dixon] was the right coach to lead us. He was so well-respected by all of us.”
Every prominent college was after the blue-chip center.
“[North Carolina’s] Dean Smith came to Whitehall to see me,” recalled Walker. “I had Michigan and Iowa, a bunch of schools that I was considering. Louisville was such a good fit for me. [Denny Crum] was a Hall of Fame coach. It was just two and half hours away.”
In their semifinal contest, Whitehall shot 50 percent from the floor, compared to St. Mary’s Memorial’s 29.1 percent field goal percentage. The Rams outlasted the Roughriders – 52-38 – behind Walker’s 18 points. In the victory, however, their junior big man suffered an injury.
“[St. Mary’s] beat the tar out of Samaki,” Dixon said. “He hurt his foot in that game. There was absolutely no way he was going to miss the championship game though.”
IV. The improbable run to Columbus
Girard entered the post-season unseeded with a 14-6 record. The Indians defeated Rayen and Struthers by wide margins to set up the rubber match against Canfield in the district semifinal.
The Cardinals posed a major challenge to the opposition.
“We knew we were going to be in for a battle,” Swan said. “We gained a lot of confidence from our last meeting [with Canfield].”
“We had already played them twice, we were prepared. We weren’t going to see anything that they hadn’t shown us in the first two games,” said D’Eramo.
Down by as many as 14 in the second half, Huyler and Root both fouled out.
“We’re playing without our two-point guards in overtime,” said Krizancic. “Kris [Kelly] sprained his ankle, but Nick was there to make that clutch shot.”
D’Eramo drained the final basket with four seconds remaining to send Girard into the district championship game with a 70-69 double-overtime win.
“Looking back at it, I probably should’ve driven to the hoop,” D’Eramo laughed. “I pulled up for the jump shot without anyone there to rebound.”
Kelly recalled the injury that had folks on pins and needles.
“I hurt my ankle diving after a loose ball. I was encouraged to be able to finish the game.”
The next day, Kelly was on crutches with their title tilt against Ursuline looming.
“Due to a snowstorm, we get two more days for him to rest and get better. We’re playing Monday night instead of Saturday,” Krizancic said.
In the district final, Swan connected on two key free throws with 13 seconds left to propel their Cinderella season into the Sweet 16 by eliminating Ursuline, 60-58.
Prior to Swan’s foul shot, an Ursuline player gave him a little incentive to knock down the charity toss.
“As I’m [approaching] the line, one of [the opponents] said something to me – that enhanced my focus,” he said.
“You need some luck along the way,” Kelly said. “We had our share of luck [during] that run.”
“To be honest, I didn’t see this coming,” Hannon said. “I didn’t think they’d make it out of the district. I just felt that they were undersized. They were your typical Girard team – tough, gritty hard-nosed kids who were well-coached. I really was stunned.”
“The perennial mindset was special things could happen if we stick together,” O’Hara said. “We had a mutual respect for one another. That’s such a key to many successful programs.”
In the regional semifinal, Twinsburg Chamberlin stood in the way of Girard’s playoff run. Senior Mark Hunte and future NBA first-round pick, sophomore James Posey were just two of the many Division I talents that the Indians would face along the way.
“Hunte was the best player I probably ever saw in high school,” Clardy remembered. “He dunked on us twice, both times called for an offensive foul. Then, he stepped back and drained one from 30 feet.”
Down by double-digits, Girard didn’t give in. Huyler took team-high honors with 25 points to assist the Indians past Chamberlin, 72-66, to the next round.
“I always had a chip on my shoulder,” Huyler said. “[Dealing with] what I had to deal with [earlier], I had more to fight for.”
“We were just so focused on one game at a time,” O’Hara pointed out. “One success was leading to another, keeping things in perspective.”
With their district final pushed to Monday, now the Indians were playing three crucial games within a six-day span with the opportunity to move onto the state tournament.
Krizancic said, “Our staff would prep ahead. They’d have scouting reports, so we were never scrambling. We had an idea right away of what we were up against.”
The defending two-time state champion Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph was Girard’s last hurdle in the regional final. Tedd Kwasniak took over the program after Mike Moran left the helm in 1992 to take on the same position at John Carroll University. The Vikings featured a roster that was loaded with talent with the likes of Ricardo Crumble (DePaul), Brian Hocevar (UNLV), Melvin Levett (Cincinnati) and future NFL linebacker London Fletcher.
Krizancic spoke about a conversation he had with coach Kwasniak.
“[He] told me, ‘We were preparing the whole week to play Twinsburg’. They thought, there’s no way Girard would get by them. They underestimated us,” he said.
The Viking student body thought the same way as they gave the Indians a barrage of insults prior to the game.
“They were saying things like ‘We have these many rings; you don’t have any,'” Swan said. “We knew we were the underdogs. That was part of our motivation. We didn’t care who the other team had, we were focused and having a blast.”
The pressure of the moment didn’t seem to get in Girard’s way.
“Everyone [in our locker room] thought we were a team of destiny,” Root said. “[VASJ had] better-skilled athletes than us. We knew what we were capable of. That spoke to the way we played. Everyone knew their role and what we needed to do.”
Huyler once again put together a brilliant performance, this time scoring 29 points in the Indians’ 78-57 regional-clinching victory over the Vikings. D’Eramo poured in 22 points for Girard.
“The [narrative] was that we were David playing against all of these Goliaths,” Schubert said. “We never looked at ourselves as underdogs. We earned [our place] just like everyone else.”
The night after the Indians’ remarkable win, Root and his teammates went bowling at Kay Lanes followed by a trip to Burger King.
“I had some chicken nuggets,” Root remembered. “I woke up that [morning] at 4 a.m. [sick]. I was taken to North Side Hospital, where my uncle worked. He admitted me and pumped me with a bunch of fluids. They weren’t going to release me to take the bus down [to Columbus] with the team. My uncle was going down, so he said, ‘I’ll monitor him.'”
Krizancic’s infant son, Cole, played the role of the team’s good luck charm.
“[Players] would rub his head before the game,” Krizancic chuckled. “He didn’t miss a tournament game. Cole was on the bus down to Columbus at the age of 10 months.”
Kettering Alter reached the state semifinal by edging Eastmoor and Loveland-Hurst by a combined three points in the Dayton regional.
From the start there was a theme to Krizancic’s game plan.
“We knew we wanted to [increase] the tempo, that’s what we attempted to do,” said Krizancic. “Get out and run.”
At the intermission, the score was 26-26.
“I wasn’t feeling the greatest,” said Root. “I was really tired; I hadn’t eaten anything. At halftime, I [vomited] but I played the whole game.”
“Brad toughed it out,” D’Eramo remembered. “He played like a champ.”
Kelly, the team’s post presence, wasn’t known for stepping outside to attempt many shots from a long distance.
“[Alter] was sagging off Kris when he was out near the three-point line,” O’Hara said. “He attempted a couple of shots from out there. He missed those but it was really uncharacteristic of him [to even look to shoot from there]. I asked him about those [attempts], he said, ‘I’m open.’ I left it at that.”
The Knights were determined to not allow Huyler to have a big day.
“They’re doubling Phil,” said Swan. “He’s doing everything to hold them off [while looking] to pass to one of us. I’m standing out on the three-point line, no one’s guarding me. They left me open. Phil passes me the ball [as I’m] stepping back beyond the three-point line. I made it. That was Phil, that was us. We were selfless, we didn’t care who was scoring – whoever was hot that day, we went with it.”
The Indians made 74 percent of their 35 free throw attempts in the game. Girard outscored the Knights, 51-42, in the second half, to secure the 77-68 win. Four players scored in double-figures led by Huyler’s 22 points.
Joe Petrocelli, the coach of Alter, gave praise to Girard in his post-game interview that he was impressed by the way they were able to beat his team down the court and penetrate to the hoop.
Afterward, the team went out for dinner, but Root returned to his hotel room to rest.
“I was still sick. I just wanted to go back and sleep. I really didn’t recover [back to normal] for a few weeks,” he said.
As Root rested, Swan and a couple of his teammates went into a sporting goods store with their Girard jumpsuits on.
“The guy who ran the place asked us who we were playing,” Swan said, “‘Whitehall-Yearling.’ The guy goes, ‘No way you’re going to win that game.’”
The Division 2 championship game was set between Girard and Whitehall.
V. Crowning achievement
In preparation for the Rams, the coaches found whatever they could to try to simulate Walker’s impact.
“They had a broom,” said D’Eramo. “We’d go in for a layup and they swat us away with the broom. They’d say, ‘If you don’t go up strong, this is what will happen. We hadn’t gone up against a guy with [Samaki’s] size and length.'”
Girard resident Tommy McDonnell, an avid fan, made a remark that O’Hara remembered to this day.
“He said, ‘Those kids don’t realize how many hearts they’re carrying up and down that court.’” The small town of Girard was one win away from claiming its first state championship.
For Huyler, the game took on a different meaning.
Throughout Girard’s season, Huyler was missing something that the other players had — a connection to his family.
“You’d look up in the stands and see so-and-sos [family],” Huyler said. “I wanted my family to be there to share this [season] with me.”
When the Indians were making their push toward Columbus, Huyler was pushing his father to come north to see him play.
“I’d call and say, ‘We’re in the districts – I’d like for you to come watch.’ Same for the regionals. It was kind of a setup because he was forcing me to play as well as I could. I knew he was there for the [Whitehall] game but I couldn’t see him. I [later learned] that he didn’t want me to be nervous. He came [down to his seat] after the game started. He said ‘he was shaking like a leaf’” as the nerves got to him,” he said.
“Looking at Samaki [Walker] and Whitehall warm up prior to the state championship game, I told someone nearby, it’s been a great run, but it’s over,” Hannon recalled. “Girard doesn’t have a shot against these guys.”
Throughout his career on the hardwood, Kelly took on a football mentality.
“I always thought I could out-muscle those basketball players who didn’t have a football background. No one intimidated us. We had that mindset by growing up in Girard. We had a toughness, a certain edge to us. We were never nervous,” he said.
Krizancic said the game plan was simple.
“We were hoping to keep Samaki away from the hoop. Get our buckets in transition,” he said.
“Coach had us locked in,” Huyler said. “We had no fear; it didn’t matter to us that we were going up against Samaki, who was getting ready to play in the league (NBA).”
Early on, Girard found a way to attract Walker away from the basket.
In the previous game, Kelly had attempted a couple of three-point shots. In the first quarter, he connected on a pair of triples to give the Indians an 11-6 advantage.
“That caused him to come out and [defend] me,” Kelly recalled. “It opened the middle for our guards to be able to penetrate.”
“We weren’t expecting [Kelly] to hit those threes,” Burns said.
Girard led after the first quarter, 18-13.
Whitehall responded with a 10-2 run to begin the second quarter. The Rams went up 31-29 at the half.
Forty-five seconds into the third quarter, Walker — who finished with 24 points — was assessed for his third foul. Hankins kept the Rams in the game by scoring nine of his 15 points in the third frame.
With just over five minutes remaining, Whitehall led, 54-50. However, Huyler’s three-point play (layup/free throw) gave Girard the lead for good at 55-54 with 4:10 left on the clock.
“One of the biggest problems we had all year was [playing against] super, quick guards,” Hankins said. “We tried to adjust by throwing a zone at [Huyler], man-to-man, we switched up guys who were guarding him.”
Lupton was the Ohio Capital Conference defensive player of the year; however, guarding Huyler was no chore.
“I couldn’t guard him,” said Lupton. “Alston tried, we just couldn’t stop him.”
Kelly’s diving steal against Walker near midcourt allowed the Indians to ultimately hold onto the ball for nearly two minutes. From there, Kelly found Root on a back-door cut for the layup.
“Kris and I are standing near half-court,” Swan said. “We grew up on [Walnut] Street playing basketball in our driveways dreaming of playing for the state championship. Look at us now, look at what we’ve done. It was total disbelief — unbelievable joy that we had accomplished this.”
The Indians became the first and only boys’ high school basketball team from Trumbull County to win the state championship, 64-57, over Whitehall.
Huyler was named tournament MVP following his 34-point performance.
“At the time, I didn’t know [the magnitude] of what we had accomplished,” Huyler said. “We didn’t have these things in The Bahamas. I’m looking for my father; I’m thinking of my family back home. You’re climbing a mountain; you slip and cut your hands because the rocks are so sharp. But you keep going until you reach the top. It was a euphoric feeling.”
“The name Phil Huyler [still] haunts me to this day,” said Walker. “He was incredible, elevating his team to victory. He was the best player on the court that day.”
For Whitehall’s coach, the game has stuck with him for 30 years.
“There hasn’t been a week that’s gone by that I don’t think about that game,” said Dixon.
For Hankins, it meant the end of the road.
“It was going to be sad, regardless, with the realization that these guys who I had played basketball with since the fifth grade, we weren’t going to have that opportunity anymore,” he said. “I couldn’t watch the [replay of the] game then because it would sting too much. Now, technology doesn’t allow me to.”
Walker was drafted ninth overall in the 1996 NBA Draft by Dallas. He played 10 seasons and won the championship in 2002 as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Nowadays, he’s involved in a training program for the youth.
“My focus is for the kids to know that the game is more than just wins. Basketball’s a platform. I want to be an extension of their parent’s values through my coaching and mentoring,” he said.
He has three children all involved in basketball – a pair of sons, Jabari (Portland Trailblazers) and Dibaji (Appalachian State), and a daughter Sakima (Northwest Florida/Rutgers).
After enjoying the extreme joy of winning the state championship, Kelly described the locker room as a different emotion.
“We get back and it hit us. It’s all over. We had no more games to play,” he said.
As Krizancic made his way back to his team, he found a scene much different from the jubilation he was expecting.
“I’m starting to talk and each of them is crying. Kris says, ‘Coach, we can’t practice tomorrow.’ That said everything you needed to know about that group. They loved each other,” he said.
The bus was led by a police escort as the team neared the city of Girard, Root remembered.
“We get onto 422. People are everywhere. We had to get off the bus and walk [to] where they could get through and take us up to the school.”
“It was unbelievable,” Krizancic said. “[People] were lined up on State Street. We got up to the high school, and they had a pep rally for us. The kids did not want to leave. It was so much fun for everyone.”
“I think back on how fortunate we were to have this amazing [experience] in our life,” D’Eramo pointed out. “All the hard work paid off; it was life-altering.”
“Being a part of this team was instrumental in my life,” said Napier. “It gave me the ability to always keep fighting in life. Never give up [even] when you aren’t the favorite. Anything’s possible.”
Huyler said, “Everyone came together as one. We’ll always be together for life.”
Later in the day, Campbell defeated Belpre to win the Division III State Championship.
It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see multiple football teams advance to the state tournament. However, basketball was a different story.
“Youngstown’s a football town,” reminisced Hannon. “It was unprecedented to have two basketball teams win the championship. The area doesn’t produce many Division 1 basketball players. You had two communities [Campbell and Girard] that are very loyal. It seemed as if everyone from those towns was at those games. That made it [incredible]. If I had to choose the most fun I had covering sports during my career, these runs would most definitely be in my top five, all-time.”
Tim Loomis served as Florida Atlantic’s head basketball coach for six seasons (1989-95). He oversaw the program as the Owls transitioned to Division I status in 1993. Prior to his appointment in Boca Raton, Loomis was an assistant at Penn State under Bruce Parkhill alongside Ed DeChellis.
“Ed had worked out [Philip] for Penn State,” Loomis said. “He called me and said, ‘We can’t use him, but I think he’d be a great fit for your program’.”
Huyler joined Loomis – the current Thiel basketball coach – at Florida Atlantic in 1993. Huyler earned All-Trans America Athletic Conference honors as a senior. Over 25 years have passed since his graduation, and Huyler still ranks second in steals all-time in school history.
“He made such a huge difference in my program,” Loomis noted. “To this day, he may have been the best defender I coached at any level [in my 45 years].”
Huyler lives with his wife and two-year-old son in south Florida while working in the financial service industry.
Two months after their championship, Krizancic left Girard for the same position at Mentor. Seventeen years later, he was coaching his son, Cole, in Columbus in the state semifinal. In 2013, Krizancic won his second state title when his Cardinals topped Rogers. Just this past November, he accumulated win No. 700 during his illustrious career.
O’Hara moved on to coach the varsity basketball program at Liberty and eventually back to lead the Indians. He now serves as the superintendent of the Girard City schools.
Kelly played football for Floyd Keith at Rhode Island. Now, he serves as a sales director for an insurance agency in New Jersey.
Root is currently in the healthcare field near South Bend, Indiana. D’Eramo works for J.P. Morgan in Dublin, Ohio. Swan’s an engineering professional for Stellantis in Michigan.
Special thanks to Rob Burns, Beep Clardy, John Cullen, Nick D’Eramo, Mike Dixon, Gary Hankins, Bob Hannon, Philip Huyler, Kris Kelly, Tim Loomis, Jimmy Lupton, Bob Krizancic, Robert Napier, Bryan O’Hara, Brad Root, Jim Schubert, Keith Swan and Samaki Walker for their contributions. Interviews were conducted from December 21 to February 1.