As 2021 comes to a close, I take a look at my 10 favorite stories from District 9 and District 10 from the calendar year.
These aren’t necessarily the Top 10 BEST stories, although some of them – most – are worthy of such discussion but instead are my personal FAVORITE story lines ranked in order from 10 to 1.
10. 900 Coaching Wins
It’s hard to conceive the amount of time a basketball coach has to put in just to reach 500 wins. Even if a program won 20 games a year it would take 25 years.
Elk County Catholic boys’ coach Aaron Straub blew past 500 a long time ago.
In fact, Straub won his 900th game as a coach on Jan. 16 when his Crusaders beat Otto-Eldred, 53-45,
By the time the season was over, Straub carried a record of 914-267 through 41 years and 890-245 in 39 years as ECC’s boys’ coach having spent two years coaching the ECC girls.
With the Crusaders sitting at 6-1 going into 2022, Straub will soon have 900 wins as a boys’ coach and currently sits at 920-268 in his 42nd season. Just amazing.
9. High Five to Reynolds
When Reynolds beat Southern Columbia March 27, 31-22, to win the PIAA Class 2A title it marked the fifth straight title for the Raiders, who last didn’t claim gold when Brookville did in 2016.
With the five straight championships, Reynolds became the first District 10 team regardless of sport, to take home five straight state titles.
While comebacks in wrestling aren’t quite the same as say in basketball as they are dependent on what weight class you start at (a different sequence could mean a team held on instead of coming back), Reynolds did trail 22-3 following the 189-pound bout before winning seven straight to take the title.
8. Double 1000
It’s always a special occasion, really an event, when a player scores 1,000 career points.
But to witness two, in the same game, from the same team?
Nah, it’s too rare to even consider.
Until it isn’t.
On Dec. 15, Redbank Valley’s Bryson Bain and Chris Marshall both accomplished the feat …. A minute, 43 seconds apart …. In a 72-19 home win over Cranberry.
Bain, who came into the game needing 12 points to reach the milestone, was the first one to do so at the 6:54 mark of the second quarter, and he was followed by Marshall, who was 16 points shy of the mark coming into the game, a 1:43 later.
It is such a rare accomplishment that it is believed to have happened just two other times in District 9 history.
The last time was in 2002 when First Baptist Academy, which is no longer a D9 member, saw Steve Snyder and Ben DeLarme accomplish the feat on Jan. 8 in a 71-18 win over Clearfield CMA.
A day after Bain and Marshall did it, it was also confirmed that it happened in 1996 at St. Marys when Steve Gee and Dave Mullaney accomplished the feat.
7. A wrestling community embraces basketball
Brookville in a state championship during the winter sports season. No big deal. The wrestling program always does that.
Wait, not the wrestlers but the basketball team? No way.
The Raiders, in a champions-only tournament due to the pandemic, became the first District 9 school in a classification higher than 1A to make it to the boys’ basketball title game since 1992.
And they did it in memorable fashion.
There was the overcoming a 10-point deficit late in the third quarter to Chestnut Ridge in a sub-regional game using a 24-6 run that included Jace Miner scoring 10 straight points to win 68-58.
The first round – also quarterfinal – PIAA game at WPIAL champion Ellwood City will go down as one of the greatest games in PIAA history.
In a back-and-forth game, the teams were tied at 60 following a Miner free throw with 50.9 seconds left.
A turnover by Ellwood City gave Brookville the ball with 25.5 seconds to play, but the Raiders gave it right back in front of the Brookville bench with 13.2 seconds to go.
At that point, Brookville was just hoping for overtime.
Instead what the Raiders got was the play of the year – if not the century – by Miner.
Starting from just behind midcourt, Miner read the inbounds pass, stole the ball, and laid it in with 9.4 seconds left to give Brookville a 62-60 lead.
Ellwood City still had s shot, and they took one from inside the paint as time expired only to have Miner, who else, swat it away for the game-clinching blocked shot.
In the semifinals for the first time in school history, Brookville hosted state power Bishop Guilfoyle.
It was a game that didn’t want to end – literally didn’t want to end.
With Brookville clinging to a 45-44 lead the horn sounded three times before it was actually called an official game.
The first time occurred after Patrick Haigh missed a stepback jumper with 3.2 seconds left and Ian Pete grabbed the rebound, the buzzer sounded, and the Brookville players went crazy.
But the officials decided Pete was fouled with 0.6 of a second left sending him to the free-throw line.
The officials, however, got confused as to who really should have gone to the free-throw line and sent Hunter Geer there instead of Pete.
Geer, who had given Brookville the lead, 45-43, with a jumper with 1:18 to play, hit the first free throw to make it 46-44 but missed the second one. The rebound caromed toward the left corner where a BG player tracked it down.
The horn sounded again. Brookville celebrated again. The officials had other ideas again. They said the horn sounded before the ball was touched. They gave Bishop Guilfoyle the ball back in the backcourt with 0.6 of a second to play.
Bishop Guilfoyle got an OK look from 35-feet away. It was off the mark. This time the celebration was real. Brookville was headed to Hershey.
In Hershey, the Raiders ran into a team on a mission in Loyalsock and fell, 75-53, but it was a ride their fans will never forget.
6. Prepping for a Title: Cathedral Prep Wins First State Championship in Over a Quarter Century
I have had the privilege to cover many state basketball championship games in my career.
None of the outcomes were as big of a surprise as Cathedral Prep beating Archbishop Ryan, 69-49, to win its first state title since 1993.
Heck, when the D10 5A playoffs started, Prep wasn’t even the favorite to win the D10 title. That was Meadville, which beat the Ramblers twice during the regular season.
But Prep got its revenge in the D10 title game topping the Bulldogs 52-36 after allowing just five first-half points.
In the opening PIAA game at DuBois, the Ramblers turned a 19-17 halftime lead into a 47-34 win.
Another road game was on tap in the quarterfinals. This time at heavily favored WPIAL champion New Castle.
The Hurricanes entered the game at 21-2 and were coming off a 61-45 win over Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL title game avenging one of the two regular-season defeats.
Down seven late in the fourth quarter, 44-37 with 1:30 to play, a 7-0 run was capped by a Liam Galla basket with about four seconds left after Will Inness had scored the first five points of the run.
Then in overtime, the game went back-and-forth with three ties, the last at 50 apiece. An Inness free throw following an intentional foul made it 51-50 Prep before another free throw by Galla made it 52-50.
New Castle, thanks to Prep making just 2 of 6 free throws after the game was tied at 50, had a chance to tie or win the game at the end, but Isaiah Boice missed a 3-pointer before Mike Wells missed a shot. Mike Graham got the rebound and put it back in, but the shot came after the horn leaving the Ramblers with the stunning, 52-50, overtime upset.
Up next, a trip to Greensburg, Pa., and Hempfield High School where Cathedral Prep met District 3 champion, Lower Dauphin.
A fast start – Prep used a 19-6 first-half run to build a 21-10 lead less than three minutes into the second quarter, helped make that dream a reality.
Up 30-21 at halftime and 42-28 early in the fourth quarter, the Ramblers withstood a 7-0 Lower Dauphin run in the fourth quarter to get a 54-46 win and a trip to Hershey and the state title game.
In that game, a 13-2 run over the final 3:14 of the first quarter erased an 8-2 deficit and gave Prep a 15-10 lead at the end of eight minutes. It was a lead they held onto for the final 27:14 of the contest.
A 15-4 second-quarter domination increased the advantage to 30-14 by halftime with Khali Horton outsourcing Archbishop Ryan all by himself, 15-14.
The lead increased to 48-30 by the end of the third quarter, and Prep rolled to its first state title since 1993 with a 69-49 win with Horton, a sophomore, scoring 25 points.
5. The Power of Bowser
At first blush, the numbers Keystone sophomore Natalie Bowser put up during the 2021 softball season don’t seem real.
A .766 batting average, 14 home runs, 15 doubles, 48 RBIs (in 19 games), 32 runs scored, a .808 on-base percentage, and a 2.558 OPS.
When you look even closer you might think she was a video-game player (not playing the video game, actually in the video game). She made 14 outs all season. Yes, you read that correctly, Bowser committed 14 outs while hitting 14 home runs. That may very well be a stat that District 9 has never seen before and may never see again. She also ended the season on an eight-game home-run hitting streak. Yes, she hit at least one home run in each of her final eight games.
If all those offensive numbers aren’t mind-boggling enough on their own, there was her pitching.
She went 7-3 with a 1.85 ERA while striking out a batter an inning (63 in 63 innings of work) while walking 14.
Bowser was the D9and10Sports.com District 9 Softball Player of the Year AND Rookie of the Year (yes, these numbers all game in her first-ever varsity softball season). She was also named a first-team Class 2A Pennsylvania High School Softball Coaches Association All-State first baseman and was the KSAC MVP.
4. One … Two … Three … Title Here We Come
What Emma Ruhlman of Warren did in the District 10 Class 5A girls basketball championship game against Slippery Rock was fit for a movie script.
The night before the game, Ruhlman and her Dragon teammates Kelsey Stuart and Riley Childress imagined a scenario right out of the movies.
“What if we get a chance to win it at the free throw line?”
Ruhlman got the chance to turn that scenario into a reality.
After grabbing the rebound on a missed free throw with under five seconds to play, she dribbled up the court and put up a 3-pointer just before the final buzzer. The shot didn’t fall, but Ruhlman was fouled on the play and stepped to the free throw line with no time left on the clock.
Warren trailed Slippery Rock, 39-37, and Ruhlman had three shots with the title in the balance. If she made less than two, the Lady Dragons’ season would be over. If she made two the game would head to overtime. If she made all three Warren would be able to add more hardware to its trophy case.
Ruhlman hit the first, then buried the second. Finally, she hit nothing but net on the third and had just enough time to take a seat on the court before being mobbed by her teammates in celebration of the program’s third D-10 championship, a thrilling 40-39 victory.
3. Twice as Nice
After Clarion won the 2020 PIAA Class 1A volleyball championship by losing just one set all season, it was hard to envision a way for the Lady Cats to emulate that feat in 2021.
Especially considering four-year starting setter Brenna Campbell graduated along with the team’s best all-around player, Erica Selfridge.
And Clarion didn’t quite emulate 2020.
In 2021 the Lady Cats lost two sets instead of one – both at Warren in a 3-2 win in September.
But the end result was the same, another state title – the third in school history – just the fourth team to win back-to-back PIAA titles in Class 1A.
And they made it look easy.
In the D9 playoffs, Clarion swept Otto-Eldred, Clarion-Limestone, and Oswayo Valley never allowing more than 19 points in a set while winning its fourth straight D9 championship.
In the state bracket, California mustered no more than 13 points in a Lady Cat sweep.
Onto the quarterfinals, Greensburg Central Catholic provided a stiff test playing to within three points in the first two sets but still getting swept away.
A rematch with Bishop Canevin in the semifinals turned into the Korrin Burns show.
The Clarion senior recorded 33 kills in a 3-0 sweep.
Back in the finals, Clarion faced Sacred Heart.
A close first set (25-22) was followed by easy 25-13 and 25-18 victories setting off another wild celebration in Clarion.
Burns set the pace for the season with a District 9-best 581 kills (5.98 per set) while hitting .343. She also was the team leader in digs (220, 2.3 per set), and aces (54) while ranking second in blocks with 25.
Heading to St. Francis (Pa.) on a volleyball scholarship, Burns’ 581 kills ranked tied for 63rd nationally among teams who entered stats into MaxPreps.com and first in Pennsylvania, while her 5.98 per set were fifth-most in Pennsylvania.
But the title wouldn’t have been won without the likes of first-year starting setter Noel Anthony or Libero Jordan Best or outside hitter Aryana Girvan or right-side hitter Payton Simko who all joined Burns as all-state selections.
2. 900-98-2 … No, that’s not a misprint
When Rich Rhoades first told me the record of Reynolds wrestling after it won its 900th career dual meet on Dec. 22, we were both in disbelief.
There was no way a program in existence since 1960 could possibly have fewer than 100 losses.
But there was.
After beating Commodore Perry, 40-30, Reynolds had an all-time record of 900-98-2. That includes eight PIAA dual-meet titles (including 5 in a row – see above) and over 20 individual champions.
The Raiders have never lost more than five duals in a season while winning at least 20 nine times.
In fact, back-to-back losses this year to Greenville and Cathedral Prep marked the first time since 2016 Reynolds has even lost multiple duals in a season.
Most remarkable, the Raiders have only had eight coaches in 60-plus seasons with three lasting just one year.
As for the rest, three have topped 200 wins led by Brian Hills (371). Casey Taylor, the current coach, has 218, and Neal Lineman had 201 while losing just 12 times in 16 years ending in 1977.
1. Redbank Valley Ends 29-year wait in D9 football
I have been covering District 9 football since 1998.
One thing I was pretty sure of was that I would never cover a D9 team in a state championship game.
Afterall, only two D9 teams had ever made a state title game and neither (Keystone in 1989 nor Smethport in 1992) had to win more than one D9 game and one PIAA game to do so.
Then along came the 2021 Redbank Valley Bulldogs.
With expectations through the roof following a quarterfinal appearance in 2020, a trip to the PIAA semifinals seemed a reasonable goal for the Dogs.
But things didn’t start out well, as Keystone upset its rival in Week 1.
Thirteen wins in a row would follow including a comeback win over Port Allegany in the D9 semifinals in a game Redbank trailed early, 14-0, and a 28-21 win over Union/A-C Valley in the D9 title game after blowing a 21-0 first-half lead.
In the PIAA quarterfinals against Northern Bedford on a snow-covered Clarion University Memorial Stadium turf, the Bulldogs trailed 14-7 at halftime without their starting running back.
But backup QB Gunner Mangiantini hit Chris Marshall from 31 yards out midway through the third quarter to tie the game
Then, on the first play of the fourth quarter, backup tailback Brenden Shreckengost ran past and through Northern Bedford defenders for a 47-yard touchdown run to give Redbank a 21-14 lead.
With under a minute to go and Northern Bedford at the Redbank 13-yard line facing fourth down, the Bulldogs broke up a pass in the end zone only to be called for a hit to the head giving Northern Bedford another opportunity.
Because the penalty was half the distance and a personal foul is not an automatic first down in high school football it was still fourth down.
It was fourth-and-three from the 6-yard line with 41 seconds left, and Zeldon Fisher made the play of his career, shooting the gap and tackling the Panther ball carrier for a loss, sealing the victory.
In the semifinals against heavily favored WPIAL champion Bishop Canevin, Redbank Valley found itself down 14-0 and being outgained 172 yards to 29.
A 5-yard Bryson Bain TD run late in the second quarter made it 14-7 at halftime, but the Crusaders drove to the Redbank 11-yard line on the first drive of the second half aided by a fake punt.
That is when Marshall made one of the greatest plays in D9 history, stepping in front of a pass at the 2-yard line and going 98 yards the other way to tie the game.
The Bulldogs defense then created two more turnovers scoring the go-ahead TD on a 1-yard Shreckengost run 30 seconds into the fourth quarter.
Joe Mansfield capped the improbable 23-14 win with a safety with 5:08 to play.
In the state title game against perennial powerhouse Bishop Guilfoyle, Redbank went toe-to-toe before a last-second interception by BG sealed a 21-14 defeat for the Bulldogs but didn’t sour the best season in D9 football in 29 years.