Friday’s Division IV district final between Emmanuel Christian and Russia has the appearance of a David vs. Goliath matchup.
Emmanuel Christian, a small school north of Springfield, is 10-14 and making its first-ever district final appearance. Russia is 15-8 and is making its 10th district final since 2000.
When the teams hit the floor at UD Arena on Friday, the comparison could appear to have more validity — Russia’s starting five features three players 6-foot-3 or taller, while Emmanuel doesn’t have a player on its roster over 6-2.
But there’s a big reason why Emmanuel and Russia’s game isn’t really a David vs. Goliath matchup. Unlike David, Emmanuel’s already got a win over a Goliath to its credit.
The Lions, which beat 15-win Franklin-Monroe 70-54 in their first tournament game, will face Russia at 7:30 p.m. on Friday with a district championship and regional berth on the line.
It’s Russia first district final appearance since 2015 and comes after the squad lost to Fort Loramie in sectional finals the last two years. Coach Spencer Cordonnier said it’s a special accomplishment for all on the team, but especially for seniors Jack Dapore, Hunter Cohee and Daniel Kearns.
“They’re very excited to go down to the arena and play,” Cordonnier said of the team. “A lot of them have been down there to watch other teams play. Jack Dapore the last two years and Hunter Cohee and Daniel Kearns last year were very, very disappointed not getting to go and getting beat in the sectional finals. But that happens. It doesn’t matter how you play in the regular season when you get to tournament.
“I thought we played two very, very good sectionals games, and they’re all excited. We went down there for an hour to practice (on Tuesday) and had some fun. They’re going to have fun Friday night.”
Though special for Russia, it’s new territory for Emmanuel. The program had won two tournament games since joining the OHSAA in 2003 before its current run. The Lions were 5-11 in early February but won three games in a row and then followed with three close losses to finish off regular season.
“Offense, you just can’t depend on it all the time,” Emmanuel Christian coach Dan Moore said. “You’ve just got to be good defensively. That’s got to be the foundation. I had some young guys that didn’t quite buy into that early until they finally saw that there’s nights where it wasn’t going to be falling. If you don’t have a good enough defensive foundation, it’s going to be difficult to win. The team has kind of bought into that the second part of the season.”
Emmanuel’s defense was apparent in its sectional games. The Lions were the No. 7 seed in the Troy Div. IV sectional and took a first-round bye. They knocked off No. 3 seed Franklin-Monroe in a second-round game on Feb. 27 and beat Tri-Village 61-48 last Friday to claim the school’s first sectional championship.
Moore started at the school in 2001, when it opened a new campus just south of the Springfield suburb Northridge. He coached there until 2011 and after a two-year stint at Graham returned to Emmanuel in 2014.
“I personally feel like we’ve not always had an opportunity to plan like the way we were able to plan for that (Franklin-Monroe) game,” Moore said. “Having a bye, waiting on Franklin-Monroe’s (first-round) game against Southeastern, allowed us a lot of time to prepare for a really good Franklin-Monroe team. I think that was kind of the key, being able to take a step back, plan and prepare.”
Emmanuel’s ability to draw fouls helped it in both its sectional wins. The Lions hit 34-of-46 free-throw attempts against Franklin-Monroe and 27-of-32 against Tri-Village.
Russia has had success with its defense this season, including in its two sectional wins. The Raiders beat Lehman Catholic 61-35 on Feb. 27 and Jackson Center 37-21 last Friday.
Cordonnier said keeping the defensive pressure up without putting the Lions on the free-throw line will be a big focus on Friday.
“It’s just about being in a good position and not bailing kids out,” Cordonnier said. “If we’re in good position and make them shoot a tough shot without fouling, that’s what it is more than anything. Being in the right position and not just being out of position and off balance. When those guys are putting it on the floor, we’ve got to do our best at keeping them out of the paint, staying on balance with them and making them shoot tough shots.”
Cordonnier said any questions about Emmanuel’s underdog status were answered with a victory over Franklin-Monroe.
The Jets were led this season by junior guard Ethan Conley, who was selected first team all-Southwest district in Division IV this year. Conley scored 29 points against Emmanuel, but the Lions’ mix of defenses contained him enough.
“They did a good job on Conley,” Cordonnier said. “You could tell that they were keying on them, and they had their shortest player on the floor guarding him man with a lot of help. When he caught the ball, he had two if not three guys around him on the court. They made it very difficult and made it very clear that they were not going let Conley beat them. They did a very nice job on him.
“They do a very nice job of mixing up defenses, little bit of man, little bit of zone, little bit of half-court trap. We’re going to have to be ready for a little bit of anything.”
Adonis Davis leads Emmanuel with an average of 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, while Fred Shropshire averages 11.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Davis, a junior forward, has played on varsity since his freshman season.
“Each year, we’ve tweaked his role,” Moore said. “When he was a freshman, I had an experienced squad, and he came off the bench. I didn’t really need him to score that much. He really wasn’t prepared to score on the varsity level that much. Last year, we asked him to step it up, start getting a few more rebounds and start scoring more. This year, I told him he had to put it all together.”
Davis scored 19 and 16 points in the Lions’ two sectional games. Shropshire, a 6-0 sophomore point guard, scored 13 and 14 points and had 11 total rebounds.
Two other players came up big in the wins. Senior guard Nick Kittles scored 22 points against Franklin-Monroe (16 from the free-throw line), and freshman guard Jason Channels scored 15 points against Tri-Village (10 from the line).
“They’ve got a couple of kids that are very capable of putting up a lot of points,” Cordonnier said. “Shropshire and Davis are both concerns of ours. Both those kids are very talented. Davis shoots it pretty well and can drive it. Shropshire looks like he likes to put it on the deck and get to the rim. Both of them are pretty quick and crafty and know what they’re doing with it.
“(Kittles) is a pretty good shooter. Their offense appears to revolve around Shropshire and Davis, but they’ve got a couple of good shooters outside. We’re going to have to play pretty good, we’re going to have to execute on Friday night if we expect to come out with the victory.”
Dapore leads Russia with an average of 13 points per game, while Kearns averages eight points and six rebounds.
Aside from point guard Mason Dapore, all of Russia’s starters are 6-2 or taller. Jordan York is 6-2, Jack Dapore is 6-3, Cohee is 6-4 and Kearns is 6-5.
Moore said Russia’s height advantage is a concern, especially on defense.
“They’re really long on that 1-3-1,” Moore said. “You’re going to have to be very careful about how you attack the 1-3-1. Their man defense is very solid, and they play good helpside, on the ball D. We’re going to have to be very calculated and careful with what we do.”
Contact Bryant Billing at (937) 538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.
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