The Elk County Catholic basketball team making a run in the PIAA playoffs usually isn’t something that is seen as a surprise.
But the 2021-22 Crusaders’ run to the PIAA Class 1A semifinals was certainly not something anyone outside of the locker room really saw coming.
Aaron Straub’s squad started the season with about as small of a varsity roster as you will ever see for the perennial powerhouse – just eight guys were on the bench early in the year.
And while a few JV players earned their way onto the varsity team as the season progressed, ECC still only had 10 players see varsity playing time all season.
Despite the low numbers, the success was still there.
ECC went 18-4 in the regular season and won the AML North while taking second to Brookville in the D9 League.
After a 1-1 mark in the AML playoffs including a blowout, 44-23, loss to Ridgway in the AML Title game, the Crusaders entered the D9 playoffs as a favorite but not a certainty to win the title.
But ECC used the blowout defeat to the Elkers as motivation and steamrolled to their 24th D9 title in 40 years under head coach Aaron Straub.
That included getting revenge on Clarion, the defending champion Clarion in the quarterfinals (51-36), the topping upstart North Clarion, 66-37, in the semifinals before knocking off rival DuBois Central Catholic, which had beaten the Crusaders in the regular season once, 40-31.
While that story was great, ECC was just starting to write the history of this team.
In the opening round of the PIAA playoffs at home against Rochester, the fifth-place team out of the WPIAL, the Crusaders struggled and found themselves deadlocked at 47 following a 14-8 run by the visitors.
That’s when Adam Straub scored on a layup with just under two minutes to play to give ECC a 49-47 lead.
Rochester then turned the ball over with 3.3 seconds left to help seal the victory.
In the second round, at Clarion University’s Tippin Gym, ECC had to face D10 champion Farrell.
And the athletic Steelers jumped out early taking a 21-14 lead after the first quarter.
That’s when the Crusaders got defensive holing Farrell to 1 of 14 shooting in the second quarter and 9 of 42 over the final three quarters.
That coupled with a career-high 28 points from Charlie Breindel led ECC to a 65-53 win.
Watch Breindel score a fourth-quarter layup
In the quarterfinals, ECC faced WPIAL runner-up Union-New Castle at Tippin Gym.
The Scotties looked unstoppable early on jumping out to an early 13-4 lead and holding a 10-point advantage, 18-8, at the end of the first quarter.
But as it had done against Farrell, ECC never faltered using defense to get back in the game.
Holding Union-New Castle to 1 of 10 from the floor in the second quarter, ECC took a 23-21 halftime lead and then went ahead 28-21 early in the third quarter.
The Scotties continued to battle and retook the lead for a brief moment before going down 34-32 heading to the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, DCC kept the lead between two and four points before going up 40-36 on a pair of Breindel free throws with 2:25 to go.
Union-New Castle rallied and tied the game at 41 with a minute to play, and ECC missed on a chance to win the game in regulation.
But in overtime, Breindel went 6 of 6 from the free-throw line, and Scotties coach Mark Stanley Sr. was given a technical foul with 6.6 seconds left after his son Matthew Stanley fouled out of the game and he refused to replace him allowing the Crusaders to win, 52-45.
ECC’s magical run came to an end against a superior Bishop Canevin team in the semifinals, 47-21, as BC went on to win the PIAA title.
ECC finished the year with the most wins of any D9 team (25) while going 25-6.