Chris Dugan's Sports Column
Sizing up local small college basketball teams
Typically, Wednesday nights are busy ones for area small college basketball teams. The PSAC and PAC each have started conference play and use Wednesdays for league games.
But this is final exams week at area schools, which means the teams at California, Washington & Jefferson and Waynesburg were idle last night. Thus, this is a good time to see which teams deserve passing grades for their early season play, analyze their strengths and weakness and predict what conference play has in store for the Vulcans, Presidents and Yellow Jackets.
Record: 3-3 overall, 2-1 in PSAC West
How they got here: The Vulcans could easily be 6-0. They have a pair of one-point losses and a five-point defeat at West Chester. Cal played its best game Saturday, building a 22-point first-half lead and then holding off previously undefeated Edinboro, 82-71. Head coach Bill Brown says his team is finally starting to figure out his system. Senior Keith Lowe (17.2 points per game) is proving to be one of the best players in the PSAC. His production has increased this year after being moved from point guard to the shooting guard. Lowe’s three consecutive 20-point games are a rarity for a Cal player, as Brown prefers an offense built around balanced scoring.
What’s next: The Vulcans have an opportunity to build some momentum when they host Mansfield and Bloomsburg next Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Cal was picked to finish fifth in the West Division, but if the Vulcans can get some consistent scoring and rebounding from low-post players Mitchell Weedon and Anthony Lytle, then they should be able to finish higher in the standings than the preseason prediction.
Record: 3-6 overall, 2-2 in PAC
How they got here: After losing their first four games, the Presidents have rebounded nicely and are coming off a 92-82 win Saturday at previously undefeated Thomas More. It was the second time W&J has scored 92 points in a game. With brothers and former Fort Cherry High School standouts Zach and Nate Bellhy – the latter in his first season with the Presidents after transferring from Seton Hill – W&J can score points in bunches. Zach Bellhy averages 19.3 points per game and Nate Bellhy’s average is up to 19.1 after scoring a career-high 37 points against Thomas More. No other W&J player averages more than eight points.
What’s next: The Presidents are off until Monday when they play a non-conference game at Hiram, then travel to Las Vegas for two games Dec. 20-21. The Presidents would hit the jackpot if they can find a third scoring threat to take some of the burden off the Bellhys, who have combined to attempt 44 percent of the team’s shots. Tightening up on defense would help too, as the Presidents have given up too many three-point field goals. The perimeter defense led to losses to Penn State-Beaver and Hood. When it’s time for the PAC tournament in February, W&J might be a difficult semifinal opponent.
Record: 2-5 overall, 0-3 in PAC
How they got here: Waynesburg is essentially in the second year of a major rebuilding project under third-year head coach Mark Christner. There is only one senior and one junior on the team, and the latter is in his first season with the Yellow Jackets. Christner said the lack of upperclassmen shouldn’t be used as an excuse. Waynesburg has won only one of its last 20 PAC games, but the gap between the Yellow Jackets and the rest of the league has shrunk. One thing Christner has accomplished is getting his team to play hard every night, which has kept it in games. The Jackets just haven’t found ways to win.
What’s ahead: The goal for Waynesburg is simple: Win a few PAC games and build momentum for next season, when they could be one of the most experienced teams in the league. The Yellow Jackets don’t have a go-to player on offense and are last in the league in scoring at only 60.6 points per game, so they’ll have to win with defense and rebounding.
Record: 5-1 overall, 2-1 in PSAC
How they got here: The Vulcans might be the most pleasant surprise of all the local teams, having opened the season with five consecutive wins, including impressive victories over Fairmont State and Glenville State. The winning streak ended Saturday with a 71-52 home loss to two-time defending PSAC champion Edinboro. The Vulcans played that game without center Elena Antonenko, who was out with a thigh injury. Without her, Cal lacked the size to match up with Edinboro.
What’s ahead: As the Edinboro game showed, scoring doesn’t come easily for Cal unless the Vulcans can force a bushel of turnovers. But the Vulcans do play hard and there is talent here, even though the top two scorers from last season are gone. Cal might not be able to get more than one win over West Division powers Edinboro and Indiana, but a third-place finish is a strong possibility.
Record: 6-2 overall, 3-1 in PAC
How they got here: The Presidents are another pleasant surprise. Their only losses were a four-point setback Saturday at nationally ranked Thomas More and to La Roche, which is off to a 7-1 start. Former Mt. Lebanon High School standout Chelsea Apke (16.1 ppg) has provided scoring and athleticism in the frontcourt. The development of center Valarie Dunlap (12.1 ppg) has been remarkable, and Fort Cherry High School graduate Beka Bellhy has not been overwhelmed as a freshman. The trio give the Presidents a solid front line.
What’s ahead: The loss at Thomas More surely left the Presidents circling Feb. 2 – when Thomas More plays at Henry Memorial Center – on their calendars. Before then, W&J has several tricky games. The Presidents are off until Dec. 20 when they play at Case Western Reserve, then play in a tournament Dec. 29-30 at Ohio Wesleyan before host Waynesburg Jan. 2. The Presidents are capable of beating anyone on their schedule, but will need more scoring from their backcourt and bench. If W&J can take a lead into the final minutes, the Presidents should feel good about their ability to protect it. They lead in the PAC in free-throw shooting at 74 percent.
Record: 3-5 overall, 2-2 in PAC
How they got here: The Jackets’ Sam Jones might be the most frustrated basketball coach in Western Pennsylvania. Waynesburg has four starters back from a 20-win team but the Yellow Jackets have struggled for large stretches. Waynesburg lost by 13 points at home to Grove City last week – a setback that led to a postgame practice session – and trailed winless Geneva by double figures in the first half Saturday before rallying for a victory. With a team heavy on seniors and freshmen, Jones has been utilizing more players than in past seasons, in an attempt to sort out his rotation. Play from the newcomers has been inconsistent and contributed to Waynesburg being ninth in the 10-team PAC in field-goal percentage.
What’s ahead: Waynesburg played a difficult early schedule, which Jones hopes pays dividends at the end of the season. It would help Waynesburg if it could keep Paige Pearce, the only experienced low-post player, out of foul trouble and get somebody other than Brittany Spencer (13.4 ppg) to generate offense out of half-court sets. A player to watch is Emily Hasek, who is better than her 5.4 ppg scoring average suggests.