DAYTON — Luke Kennard is the biggest thing to hit high school basketball in Ohio since a certain King was playing in Akron.
The legacy of LeBron James and what he and his teammates did at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School can never be duplicated. But they never did for their community what Kennard and his teammates at Franklin did Saturday night.
Franklin had never made it out of a sectional tournament before to the recollection of coach Brian Bales or anyone else associated with the school. That’s more of a statement about the Dayton-area Division II sectional itself which includes state powers Dunbar, Thurgood Marshall and Alter, programs that have earned 12 state tournament berths and five titles combined in the last 16 years, than it is about Franklin.
However long that streak was, it is no longer.
Kennard scored 42 points, including making all 23 free throws he attempted, in a 91-62 win over Ponitz Tech at the University of Dayton Arena. The 13,000-seat facility was filled to the rafters. Literally. Tickets that were being sold at the door ran out. Fans sitting in what was supposed to be the Franklin student section during the night’s previous game between Dunbar and Alter decided they didn’t want to give up their prime spots, so the students marched throughout the concourse and found spots in the upper level.
"We still heard them," said senior Matt Thompson.
Kennard is the reigning Mr. Basketball in Ohio. He’s the No. 3 all-time leading scorer in OHSAA history, now up to 2,870 points. He’s going to Duke to play for Coach K next season.
Basketball is so often seen in the one-on-one. Yes, this team has one of the best prep players the state has ever witnessed but it has so much more. This story is about a team that has grown up together. Five seniors start and all of the senior class began playing together in third grade.
Luke Kennard celebrates with his teammates after scoring 42 points to help Franklin defeat Ponitz 91-62 to win the sectional championship.
"Even before that," said Kennard, who is the only senior from the team who will go on to play Division I college hoops. "When we were double-dribbling at little league around here, yeah, we’ve been together for a long time. We’ve played with each other through the neighborhoods and even outside of basketball. The bond that we have is unbelievable and the chemistry that we’ve developed as a team is of a family. We say "family" when we break the huddle.
"It’s not just us. The entire community is a family."
This family is now 24-1 on the season, its lone loss to Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at the Beach Ball Classic. This family has wins over defending Division I state champion Lakewood St. Edward and Montrose Christian of Maryland.
Kennard is the kind of player who could’ve easily found his way to any number of bigger programs in Southwest Ohio or to a national prep powerhouse. He didn’t because that just wasn’t going to happen. His mom, Jennifer, and dad, Mark, went to Franklin. Mark Kennard still runs the youth league and is a vice-president in the athletic boosters. He coached Bales in junior high.
"His dad is a Franklin guy in and out," said Bales.
This win was for all of Franklin. The Wildcats had lost at this point in the tournament each of the last three seasons. Twice it was to Thurgood Marshall, once to Dunbar. Ponitz tied Dunbar for the Dayton City League this season and was 19-5 coming into the game.
The Wildcats weren’t going to lose this game.
Franklin never trailed after Evan Crowe made the first of his four 3-pointers and Thompson followed with the first of his six treys in the opening 67 seconds of the game. Ponitz was within striking distance in the middle of the third quarter down 10 points but Franklin closed out the quarter on a 16-5 run to lead by 22 points heading into the final eight minutes.
Luke Kennard shoots during Franklin’s win over Ponitz.
"This is been our peak the last couple of years," said Crowe, who will be going to play at Division III Taylor University in Indiana next season. "This was a statement that we are for real. It’s a big stepping point. It’s not our peak (this year)."
Four players scored the 91 points for Franklin. Kennard only had four points in the first quarter as Thompson and Crowe combined to make six 3-pointers as the Wildcats jumped out to a 26-17 lead. Thompson ended the game with 18 points. Crowe had 16. Austin Doliboa added 15 points. Jake Riddell, the other starter, didn’t score but did what was asked of him.
It’s not a deep team. Freshman Ryan Montgomery comes off the bench first. Seniors Cody Barnes and Cole Blevins will see some action. Numbers aren’t the important thing.
"That’s been our thing all year, we’ve had different guys step up and then Luke does his thing," said Bales. "We’ve never talked about winning league. We never talk about winning sectional. It’s always been WTNO — Win The Next One. That’s how our guys are wired."
The rest of the family, the ones who filled UD Arena, lined up as the players and coaches left for the team bus parked in the rear of the building. There is no question that Kennard is the star attraction. He graciously signs autographs and poses for photos, all while assistant coaches are trying to get him out of the cold. No need for Kennard getting sick before next Friday’s district final.
The family is soaking up the moment. There have been so many moments to relish already. There is at least one more to game to play.
"It’s amazing because playing high school basketball you don’t get this everywhere," said Thompson. "It’s my last time playing basketball. I won’t be playing at the college level. Not a lot of people get to experience this. It’s amazing. It’s heartwarming, to tell you the truth, how much support we have and how much they believe in us.