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Krueger steers Tigers through uncertainty

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Connor Kern of the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team minced no words describing the coach who guided the Tigers to the cusp of a third consecutive Division I district championship.

"He's very emotional. He's uplifting for our team," said Kern, a first-team all-district senior guard who will play at Arkansas State. "If he could get out there and play with us, he would. He's up in us. He's cheering us on. He's a very energetic coach."

Kern wasn't describing Jerry Francis, a onetime Ohio State player and determined taskmaster with an unmistakable booming baritone voice who coached Central to the 2012 state title -- but he might as well have been.

Kern was talking about Eric Krueger, a four-year assistant who has been in charge of the Tigers since early January. The circumstances of his interim label were not ideal. Krueger ascended to the head coach's seat after Francis suffered a mini-stroke, then underwent back surgery. Francis has stayed away from practices and games during his convalescence, but keeps in touch with the team.

Central won its first eight games with Krueger in charge and was 18-5 before playing Marysville in a district semifinal March 5. If all went according to plan, the Tigers will go for a district title Saturday, March 8, at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.

Before the season, or even since Francis' health issues, that scenario might have not surprised anyone. But Central was dealt another blow when standout forward Jae'Sean Tate was lost for the season in late January because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The Ohio State signee was averaging 20.7 points and 11.5 rebounds.

Still, the Tigers haven't flagged. They split their third OCC-Ohio Division championship in a row with Gahanna and Newark, as all went 11-3 in the league, and the players largely credit that consistency to Krueger.

Krueger is flattered to hear any comparisons to Francis and insists there are times when he is trying to find his way.

"I am very comfortable, but I have a lot to learn," he said. "I am definitely just working hard and I feel more comfortable on the sideline all the time. I've always been confident on the sideline since day one, but I think I am just learning more as I go, just like this team."

Francis, who scored 1,486 points as a Buckeye from 1985-89, stalks the sideline with demonstrative emotion. He leaps for joy after good plays and stares down his players -- or, perhaps more accurately, stares through them -- after rough patches. Those traits, not to mention the winning, have endeared him to his players, staff and many Tigers fans.

Despite the similarities Kern listed, Krueger is more reserved during games, at least outwardly.

"Coach Krueger is more laid-back. He lets us go out there and do a little more," guard D.J. Tyree said. "Coach Francis is a little more strict, but we do what he says and it works."

Krueger calls his style a mixture of Francis as well as Joe Staley, his high school coach at Dayton Chaminade Julienne, and Dan Priest, for whom Krueger played at Ohio Dominican.

"Coach Francis has always told me to take a little bit of everything and then add some wrinkles, like a melting pot of coaching ideas, and then add my own personality and my own mentality," Krueger said.

Whatever happens from here, Krueger's stock and confidence have skyrocketed. He'll be a head coach someday, somewhere, not that the title would serve as some kind of validation.

"I'm only 31. I think I can relate to these kids really well. I can see what's going on with the kids," he said.

"Not too long ago, I was doing the same things mentally in the same situations. I'm excited. We're doing well right now, but there's a lot of work to do."

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