PAC Women’s Basketball Preview: Narrowing the Gulf

By Justin Zackal

Thomas More celebrating the 2015-16 National Championship.

Thomas More celebrating the 2015-16 National Championship.

There’s a gulf between the Thomas More women’s basketball team and the rest of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. The reigning national champion Saints rolled to another conference crown last year, while outscoring PAC opponents by an average of nearly 50 points per game in the process.

Somewhere between Thomas More and the shoreline of the PAC field is Washington & Jefferson, which tied a school record with 24 wins last year after three straight 21-win seasons. Is the gap between W&J and Thomas More or W&J and the rest of the PAC narrowing entering the 2016-17 season?

Well, both W&J and Thomas More lost its best players from last year, all-PAC first-teamers Beka Bellhy and Sydney Moss, respectively. Moss was a three-time Division III National Player of the Year who averaged 22.1 points per game last year.

“You go into those games with Sydney Moss and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s nothing we can do,’” said W&J head coach Jina DeRubbo. “At least that 20-point intimidation factor may be gone right off the bat. I’m sure Thomas More is going into the season with everything to prove that they are more than just Sydney Moss, which I always thought that to be true anyway. But I think some of that wow-factor in terms of players’ perceptions will be diminished a little bit.”

Let’s raise the periscope from the gulf of the PAC for a peek at each team’s outlook.


THOMAS MORE (33-0, 18-0 PAC in 2015-16)
Yes, there will still be an intimidation factor, but instead of 20 points from one player it will be at least 40 points spread across Thomas More’s three returning starters in juniors Nikki Kiernan (13.4 ppg) and Abby Owings (15.0) and sophomore Madison Temple (11.4).

“We’re trying to figure out some holes we’ve got to fill (with the players we lost) and where our new pieces fit in and how we can replace the scoring, the rebounding and the leadership,” said Thomas More head coach Jeff Hans.

There was still more than a 30-point average gap between W&J and Thomas More in three meetings last year, including a 93-74 Saints win in the PAC championship game.

However, W&J returns four starters, including juniors Amirah Moore (10.2 ppg) and Rachel Bellhy (9.3), Beka’s sister who scored in double figures 13 times after becoming a starter midseason. The Presidents also focused on a specific area to win more games this year.

“We set some goals this year to be a better defensive team,” DeRubbo said. “That’s something we spent an enormous amount of time on in the preseason.”

SAINT VINCENT (15-13, 8-10)
The Bearcats were PAC runners up two years ago with a 22-5 record, but they’ll easily rebound from last year with all five starters returning, including four senior starters led by Mara Benvenuti (13.3 ppg) and Susie Ellis (12.1).

“Saint Vincent should have a really good year,” DeRubbo said. “They have most of their people back.”

WAYNESBURG (15-14, 11-7)
DeRubbo mentioned Waynesburg as a tough matchup because the Yellow Jackets shoot a lot of threes (24.3 attempts per game, making 31 percent) and they have second-team All-PAC forward Addy Knetzer (14.4 ppg, 9.1 rpg) who can dominate a game.

GROVE CITY (13-13, 11-7)
The Wolverines improved by one PAC win last year, but it marked their first back-to-back winning conference seasons in 13 years. Junior forward Lexie Arkwright (13.3 ppg) is back to try to make it three straight.

CHATHAM (11-16, 6-12)
The Cougars’ overall record last year tied for their best mark since 2009-10 and they doubled their PAC win total from the previous year. Sophomore guard Katelyn Sieg (11.0 ppg) returns.

BETHANY (8-18, 6-12)
Bethany has a new coach in Brian Sansom, who inherits four players who started at least 10 games last year, including senior guard Hayley Holenka (14.1 ppg) and junior forward Kelsea Dougherty (13.4). Six-foot-three senior forward Dakota McKenzie joins the team after starring for the PAC-champion Bison volleyball team.

GENEVA (9-17, 6-12)
The Golden Tornadoes won five more games last year than they did the previous season, but that kind of overcoming adversity is nothing compared to head coach Lori Wynn’s battle with cancer following an offseason diagnosis. Geneva will look to rally around its coach as the team returns four of its top five scorers, led by sophomore guard Callie Ford (10.4 ppg).

WESTMINSTER (4-21, 4-14)
Opposing coaches, including DeRubbo, typically identify Westminster as a team that “always plays really hard” and that “they are tough and scrappy and defensively they get after it.” But the Titans just haven’t been able to score many points, ranking last in the PAC in scoring average the last two years with 55.3 and 52.7, respectively. Junior forward Kristine Fromknecht is the top returner (10.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

THIEL (4-21, 4-14)
The Tomcats won a combined 14 games the last three seasons, but there’s hope with a young backcourt that will consist of sophomore Jess Vormelker (11.7 ppg) and freshmen Sadie Buchser, who was a 1,000-point scorer at Riverview High School.

“I think this conference is getting better. It will continue to get better,” DeRubbo added. “I think we had some teams last year that will build on their successful seasons. Thomas More is a national power and they’re going to continue to be so, but we’re looking forward to the year. I think it’ll be a good battle.”