CLARION, Pa. – Otto-Eldred is hoping for its “Hoosiers” moment when it takes on Aliquippa in the PIAA Class 2A boys’ semifinals at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, at PennWest Clarion’s Tippin Gym.
“Maybe so,” first-year Terrors’ head coach Derrick Francis said. “As former Bradford head coach Dave Fuhrman Tweeted out, we are like a modern-day “Hoosiers”.
“Hoosiers”, for those not familiar, is the 1986 movie starring Gene Hackman where fictional high school Hickory wins the 1952 Indiana state championship over a taller, more athletic, heavily favored South Bend Central team. The movie was partly inspired by the 1954 Milan High School winning the Indiana state championship.
And have no doubt, that is what Otto-Eldred (26-2), the District 9 runner-up, will be facing when it takes on the WPIAL champion Quips (23-6), who won the PIAA Class 4A football title this fast fall with many of the same players and went to the 3A championship in basketball a year ago before falling to Devon Prep.
Aliquippa has won five PIAA titles and has been in the championship game 11 times. The Quips are trying to win advance to the PIAA title game in both football, which began in 1988, and basketball for the fifth time in school history (it has only been done 16 times in the history of the PIAA).
Derrick Francis knows the history of Aliquippa, heck last year he was at The Giant Center in Hershey as a fan watching the Quips play Devon Prep for the 3A title.
But he also doesn’t believe his team will be in awe of that history.
“They won’t be in awe,” Francis said. “We are mentally locked in. This group of kids coming through, they have embraced this moment. They have played a lot of AAU basketball. This is nothing we haven’t seen. We know Aliquippa is very talented, very athletic, and can guard you tight. But we won’t be in awe by any stretch of the imagination.”
Francis also knows his team doesn’t currently have any Division I-caliber athletes – although considering three of his starters are just sophomores, anything is possible – but also knows Otto-Eldred has played athletic teams in the past, including in the quarterfinals, a 42-40 win over Erie First Christian.
“We just played Erie First Christian,” Francis said. “They had some tremendous athletes. They are very athletic. I am not sure they are quite as athletic as Aliquippa, but they ran up there.”
Francis said the thing that makes Aliquippa so good isn’t so much its pedigree or its athleticism as it is the Quips’ commitment level to playing hard.
“Aliquippa has a high motor,” Francis said. “They just fly and keep coming. They never hang their head, and they are well-coached. They are a strong program.”
The other thing that makes Aliquippa a hard out is the balanced approach to scoring taken by the Quips. Since the start of the WPIAL playoffs, Aliquippa has played seven games with five different players leading the Quips in scoring and no one doing so more than twice.
D.J. Walker, who is headed to Ohio University to play football, and Quentin Goode have each done it twice while Jayace Williams, Cameron Lindsey, and Demarkus Walker have also had games in the postseason where they are the leading Quip scores.
“It makes it hard to guard them,” Francis said.
In Aliquippa’s 67-58 win over Bishop Canevin in the quarterfinals Saturday, the only postseason game the Quips have won by fewer than 10 points (the average postseason margin of victory is 28.7 ppg, Demarkus Walker had 18 with Lindsey adding 16, Goode 13, and DJ Walker 12.
D.J. Walker had 23 points in an 84-29 second-round win over West Branch, while Goode had 18 and D.J. Walker 17 in a 65-33 first-round win over Karns City.
Otto-Eldred knows a thing or two about spreading the ball around as well.
In six postseason contests, the Terrors have had four different players either lead the team in scoring or share the team lead in scoring with Brax Caldwell and Shene Thomas doing it twice.
“We have five guys on the court who are a threat to score,” Francis said. “It is hard to guard us like it is hard to guard Aliquippa.”
The share-the-ball approach has four Terror players scoring between 11.1 ppg and 14.7 ppg led by Francis’ son, Landon, only a sophomore, at 14.5 ppg. Thomas adds 12.4 ppg, Manning Splain, the son of Otto-Eldred superintendent Matt Splain, who was the head coach of a Coudersport girls team that reached the PIAA semifinals, adds 12.1 ppg, and Austin Cousins, the lone senior in the starting lineup, chips in 11.1 ppg.
But Derrick Francis said as important as scoring is, defense is even more important for Otto-Eldred.
“You don’t play for me if you don’t play defense,” Francis said. “You have to play defense or you don’t play. We only scored 42 points against Erie First Christian but they only scored 40. We held Serra Catholic to 44 points. These kids buy into defense.”
Otto-Eldred’s run to the semifinal is historic both from a school perspective and a District 9 perspective.
Prior to beating Greensburg Central Catholic in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs two weeks ago, the Terrors had never won a PIAA playoff game, and Tuesday night’s game will mark the first time a District 9 boys’ team has played in a PIAA Class 2A semifinal contest since the PIAA changed to a 1A, 2A, 3A, etc classification system in 1976 (prior to that the PIAA used a Class A (big schools), Class B (medium schools) and Class C (small schools) classification system from 1948 through 1975 with the last D9 school to advance from Class B – the equivalent of the time of Class 2A being East Brady in 1968 with Slippery Rock (1852) and Kane (1948 and 1949) also doing so.)
“One of the old (Otto-Eldred) coaches, Lance Baker sent me a text Saturday night,” Francis said. “In it were guys I didn’t even know who coached prior to him. He said I was the one that got them here. But it’s not about me. We started this a long time ago when these kids were in third, fourth, and fifth grade. That is when this started and they have carried it along and the kids have worked really, really hard.”
Francis knows his team is playing not only for themselves but for the entire Otto-Eldred community from Rixford to Duke Center to Eldred and everything inbetween.
“This community is second to none,” Francis said. “It is unbelievable the support we had had. Our guys have worked really hard for our community and our representing our community. Our AD (Tim Burris) had a stroke in the fall and these guys wanted to put No. 44 on the front of their chest because that was the number he wore when he played for Otto-Eldred and took us to the District 9 title game the last time (1997) They just want to play for him, the community, and one another.”
NOTES: Otto-Eldred is trying to become the 17th District 9 boys’ team to reach the PIAA title game and the second in three years after Brookville reached the game in 2021 in Class 3A finishing as the runner-up. Before that, the last D9 team to compete for a PIAA title was Johnsonburg in 2013, which also finished second in Class 1A. DuBois Central Catholic was second in 2007 in Class 1A. Elk County Catholic was the last D9 team to win a PIAA title doing so in Class 1A in 2006. Other D9 finalists include Punxsutawney in 1992 (2nd in 4A), Karns City in 1983 (2nd in 1A), East Brady in 1980 (champions in 1A), Union in 1974 (2nd in Class C), A-C Valley in 1973 (2nd in Class C), Karns City in 1972 (2nd in Class C), East Brady in 1968 (2nd in Class B), Union in 1967 (2nd in Class C), Coudersport in 1964 (2nd in Class C), Clarion in 1962 (second in Class C), Coudersport in 1952 (2nd in Class C), and Kane in 1949 (Class B champions) … The championship game is set for 2 p.m. Friday, March 24, at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. with the winner of the Aliquippa/Otto-Eldred game taking on the winner of the game between District 2 champion Holy Cross and District 3 champion Lancaster Mennonite. That game is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Martz Hall in Pottsville … A free audio broadcast of the semifinal game will be available on the YDL Sports Network and D9and10Sports.com.