WAYNESBURG – Having lost four of its top five scorers – including two four-year starters – from last season, the Waynesburg University women’s basketball program was in rebuilding mode when practice began this fall.
Sam Jones, however, says the Yellow Jackets were a fixer-upper project rather than a full-scale reconstruction.
Jones, who is in his sixth season as Waynesburg’s head coach, was confident that his recruiting efforts the last two years put the Yellow Jackets on a stable foundation. Even when Waynesburg started this season with four consecutive losses, Jones wasn’t ready to change blueprints. He believed the young Yellow Jackets could make an impact by the time Presidents’ Athletic Conference play rolled around.
Waynesburg has followed its coach’s designs and rebounded from the shaky start to forge a 3-1 record in the PAC, which included a 77-67 upset of Washington & Jefferson Wednesday night at Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse. Waynesburg overcame a 15-point deficit by shooting 57 percent (16-for-28) in the second half.
“We never lost doubt, even when we struggled early and had some internal issues that we had to deal with,” Jones said. “I knew who we are.”
Waynesburg (6-6 overall) is a program two years removed from a 20-win season and the Yellow Jackets are loaded with youthful enthusiasm. Forward Elaine Hasek is the only senior on the roster and the lone player who had more than 11 career starts before this season.
Jones might have overscheduled his young team as the Yellow Jackets played non-conference games against Denison (11-3), LaRoche (9-2), Pitt-Bradford (7-4) and Mount Union (7-5), the latter opening the season with five consecutive victories. The Yellow Jackets also played PAC power Thomas More (12-0) in the first week of December.
Waynesburg pulled its first upset last month when it won at La Roche (77-75) as freshman forward Courtney Sargent, one of Jones’ talented freshmen, came off the bench and scored 18 points. The Yellow Jackets are the only Division III team to have beaten La Roche this season.
Jones, however, said he saw the turnaround begin two weeks earlier when the Yellow Jackets handled Bethany (71-54) in the PAC opener.
“It started with the Bethany game,” Jones said. “The La Roche game made everyone believers that we were able to do some good things as a team. We dug in and said we have learned that if we stick together and execute the game plan, then we’ll be there at the end.”
Waynesburg is using at least 11 players each game and the scoring has been incredibly balanced. Sophomore point guard Lauren Blair is the Jackets’ leading scorer at 10.9 points per game. Hayden Giuliani, a junior guard, averages 10.8 points and has made 48 percent of her shots from three-point range. Hasek averages 10.2 points and 8.8 rebounds, and sophomore forward Heather Davis averages 10.1 points.
“We’re playing our best when we don’t have a single player doing all the scoring,” Jones said.
Waynesburg’s win over W&J moved the Yellow Jackets into third place in the PAC and makes the rematch Feb. 5 at Henry Memorial Center even more interesting. Defending champion Thomas More, which is ranked in the top-10 in NCAA Division III, is tied for first place in the PAC with Saint Vincent at 5-0. Neither Waynesburg nor W&J wants to finish in fourth place, setting up a potential matchup with Thomas More in the conference tournament semifinals. Finishing in at least third place is Waynesburg’s goal.
“Last year, W&J got the No. 3 seed and we got the No. 4,” Jones pointed out. “It could have made a one-round difference in our season. We talked to the team about how important this (W&J) game was.”
Before the Yellow Jackets can even begin filling in their conference tournament bracket they must get through a difficult five-game stretch that includes four road games. It begins today (1 p.m.) at Westminster (2-2, 5-6), which is on a three-game winning streak.
The W&J women (2-3, 7-5) play at Chatham (1-4, 2-10) today. The Presidents are 20-0 all-time against the Cougars.
The Waynesburg men (2-2, 7-7) are at Westminster (0-3, 1-11), and W&J (6-7) plays a non-league game at Penn State-DuBois (2-9).
Two coaches hired
Friday was hiring day in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference.
Two conference schools hired new head football coaches. About the time Westminster was introducing Scott Benzel as the Titans’ new head coach in New Wilmington, Saint Vincent was doing the same in Latrobe with Ron Dolciato.
Benzel spent the last two years as the associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator at Saint Francis (Pa.). Benzel replaces Jeff Hand, who resigned after the Titans finished 3-5 in the PAC and 4-6 overall last season.
Prior to coaching at St. Francis, Benzel spent nine years as an assistant at Robert Morris. He is a graduate of Mercyhurst and native of Plum.
The eighth head coach in Saint Vincent history, Dolciato was the associated head coach and offensive coordinator at John Carroll. In his 24-year coaching career, Dolciato’s teams have produced 19 winning seasons.
Dolciato has a major rebuilding job awaiting with the Bearcats, who were 0-10 last season and have lost 21 consecutive games.