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Yearly Archives: 2017

PAC Baseball Championship Preview: Host W&J is the Favorite, But ‘Anything Can Happen’

By Justin Zackal

Nick Vento and the W&J Presidents matched a PAC record with 21 regular season wins.

Reaching exactly 21 may get you blackjack in a casino, but it won’t win a championship in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. Washington & Jefferson set the PAC record of 21 conference wins in 2012 and matched it in 2014, but the Presidents didn’t win as hosts of the PAC Baseball Championship Tournament.

After tying the record again this year, W&J (30-9, 21-3 PAC) is hosting the tournament at Ross Memorial Park, May 11-13, for the first time since 2014. But 15th-year head coach Jeff Mountain isn’t cashing in his chips.

“I just think in a conference tournament, especially with these four teams, anything can happen,” Mountain said. “It wouldn’t be an upset for any of these four teams to win.”

The other three teams are second-seeded and defending champion Thomas More (26-10, 15-7 PAC), third-seeded Grove City (17-17, 14-10 PAC) and fourth-seeded Thiel (21-17, 13-11 PAC).

W&J and Thomas More have alternated winning PAC titles since 2013, so it’s the Presidents’ turn this year to win, which would be their 11th PAC title. Thomas More, meanwhile, seeks its fifth crown. Grove City hasn’t won the PAC since 2008 and Thiel, 2003.

The Presidents will play Thiel in the first game of the double-elimination tournament, Thursday at noon, as the two teams will play for the fourth time in six days. They split a doubleheader Saturday at W&J and the Presidents won the rubber match Sunday at Thiel.

Mountain doesn’t think the recent familiarity will matter.

“They’ll be a little more fresh in our mind, but we’ll be fresh in their mind,” Mountain said. “It just comes down to the execution of the teams and how the pitchers throw.”

He paused and added, “I don’t want to see Thiel’s pitcher.”

That pitcher is sophomore right-hander Nick Bucci, who led the PAC in wins (9-2) and strikeouts (54) while posting a 2.85 ERA. Bucci pitched a complete-game seven innings with six strikeouts, no walks, nine hits, five runs (2 earned) in a 6-5 win over W&J on Saturday. Either Bucci or Kevin Forrester, who also struck out 54 this year, will oppose W&J ace Riley Groves (7-2) and his league-leading 1.61 ERA in the first game.

According to Mountain, the margin for error in the early games of the tournament will be small; therefore, pitching and defense will be key.

“Everybody has a good arm or two that can limit the other team,” Mountain said. “You’ve got to take advantage of the limited scoring opportunities you have in those early days because the more the tournament goes on the style of the game changes.”

As teams use up their pitchers, the games gives way to higher scoring. But that doesn’t mean W&J won’t be able to outhit opponents. The Presidents lead the league in batting average (.356), on-base percentage (.437) and slugging percentage (.551). Their 41 homers tied Thomas More for the most in the PAC.

In addition to its offense and playing at home, other advantages for W&J include its experience playing a nonconference schedule against teams that finished .500 or above, and the composition of its lineup: W&J’s top eight position players and top three pitchers, according to games started, are either juniors or seniors.

Bailey Abbatiello and the Thomas More Saints hope to defend their PAC title.

“We haven’t had too many peaks and valleys, which is what you expect out of a veteran team,” Mountain said. “But all bets are off in the postseason. Sometimes the younger team is the looser team when they get things going early and they just relax. You just never know how guys are going to respond, but I think experience pays off this time of year.”

Grove City is “quietly” playing its best ball of the year, according to Mountain. The Wolverines have won six out their last seven games, including one at Thomas More, a place where W&J lost twice this year.

“Thomas More is just really good,” Mountain added. “It wasn’t an upset or they played out of their minds (when Thomas More shut out W&J twice in a doubleheader April 14); they are just a really good team and a really good program … and so is ours.”

The PAC Sports Network (PACSN) will deliver live broadcasts of all of this year’s championship tournament games at pacstream.net. After Thursday’s W&J-Thiel game at noon, Grove City and Thomas More will play at 3 p.m. Friday’s game times are noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. (if necessary).

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PAC Softball Championship Preview: Thomas More Looks to Break Host-Team Hex

By Justin Zackal

Dallis Knotts and the Thomas More Saints look to break the “home-team hex” at this year’s PAC softball championships.

Thomas More clinched home field in this weekend’s PAC Softball Championship Tournament last Friday by sweeping a doubleheader at Westminster, the site of last year’s tournament.

Sure, it was meaningful for the Saints (32-8, 18-0 PAC) to beat the second-place Titans (26-10, 14-4 PAC) and finish the conference schedule unbeaten. But Thomas More head coach Lindsay Egan could only think about two things that will happen off the field this week.

“We get to sleep in our own beds and it we get to take our finals when we need to take them,” Eagan said.

Like many schools, Thomas More will take final exams for the spring semester this week, but unlike any other team in the PAC, traveling as anything but the top seed would mean a hotel stay and more than a four-hour drive to Pennsylvania or West Virginia from Kentucky.

Thomas More will take home field over any hocus-pocus about how the top-seeded host team has not won the PAC tournament since 2011. Thomas More won five of the last 10 PAC championships but only the 2009 Saints won on their home field. The other time Thomas More hosted the tournament was in 2014, but third-seeded Washington & Jefferson won the title that year.

“It’s the game of softball,” said Eagan, attempting to explain what has plagued home teams. “Anybody can win on any given day.”

In last year’s PAC tournament at Westminster, third-seeded Saint Vincent beat fourth-seeded Bethany, 1-0, in the final game, after the Bearcats handed Thomas More both of its losses in the double-elimination tournament, 1-0 and 4-3.

Eagan points to players peaking at the right time as making a difference. Saint Vincent pitcher Samantha Emert won four games to earn Most Outstanding Player honors. Emert is back as a senior this year, ranking in the top four in the PAC in ERA (1.60, third), strikeouts (94, fourth) and wins (15-6, fourth), while leading Saint Vincent (18-14, 11-7 PAC) again as the third-seeded team.

Westminster’s Jazmyn Rohrer could be this year’s peak performer. The junior pitcher leads the PAC with an 0.98 ERA, 16-3 record, six shutouts and her 121 strikeouts rank second, this despite Thomas More blemishing her marks with eight runs (six earned) off 11 hits in last Friday’s 8-0 win that clinched the Saints home-field advantage.

Standout junior 1B Shelby Noel hopes to lead Saint Vincent to back-to-back PAC crowns.

Saint Vincent junior first baseman Shelby Noel is the top hitter in the PAC with a .465 batting averaging and 25 extra-base hits, including eight homers. However, Thomas More has four of the top seven hitters in the league, led by freshman infielder Andrea Gahan (.441).

“Our squad, anybody can have a good day,” Eagan said. “It’s somebody new every day. That helps the team win.”

Thomas More is out to win its sixth PAC title and first since 2015, while both Saint Vincent (2016) and Westminster (2005) are seeking their second PAC titles. Fourth-seeded Thiel (16-18, 11-7 PAC) has never won the league crown.

The PAC Sports Network (www.pacstream.net) will broadcast all the games at Thomas More starting Friday with Saint Vincent vs. Westminster at 10 a.m., followed by Thiel vs. Thomas More at noon, the two losers from the first two games at 2 p.m. and the two winners at 4 p.m. Saturday’s games are at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. (if necessary).

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11 Topics to Preview the Thomas More Men in the NCAA Tournament

2017 PAC champion Thomas More men’s basketball team.

By Justin Zackal

The Thomas More men’s basketball team is on a roll, so to prepare you for the Saints’ Division III NCAA tournament appearance this week, we’re going with 11 topics with responses from head coach Drew Cooper. Why 11? Well, funny you should ask.

THE STREAK: Thomas More has won 11 straight games, having not lost since a 63-61 setback at Grove City Jan. 21. What happened that made Thomas More double its win total from a 11-6 record to 22-6 in a little over a month? “If I knew I would bottle it up and sell it,” Cooper quipped.

THE REASON: Seriously, Coach, was it a new play? “It’s nothing tactical,” he said. “It’s just the confidence our kids are playing with right now. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen.”

THE EXPECTATIONS: Even though Thomas More is rather young (one senior on the roster, three sophomore starters) and Saint Vincent was a four-time defending champion, the Saints were picked to win the PAC in the preseason poll. Then Thomas More lost three PAC road games, two by a combined four points and one at Saint Vincent by six. “I don’t think the preseason rankings does anyone any favors,” Cooper admitted. “(But) it all worked out nicely.”

THE HURDLE: It did, but not until they finally beat Saint Vincent. The last four seasons ended with losses to the Bearcats in the PAC tournament, including last year’s 65-62 road loss in the finals. Stacking this season’s regular season loss and Thomas More had lost nine straight at Saint Vincent dating back to Jan. 19, 2011. “The experience helped us,” Cooper said. “The experience of losing last year. The experience of losing at their place in January. We had to go through things like that in order to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”

THE CHAMPIONSHIP: That came to a head as Thomas More not only beat Saint Vincent at home, 87-78, on Feb. 15, the Saints avenged that road loss by dethroning the Bearcats in the PAC tournament championship game on Saturday, 79-68, to clinch an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Again, it was confidence. “In order to win the championship,” Cooper said, “we had to have young men really make some players and plays were made in the second half in the Saint Vincent game that are not made unless the kids making those plays did it with confidence.”

Sophomore guard Damion King has taken over as a “go to” player during the 2017 seasons.

THE STAR PLAYER: Sophomore guard Damion King was one of those players. A first-team all-PAC selection, King scored 24 points in the PAC finals, including 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. King ranks seventh in the PAC in scoring (14.3 ppg) and he leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage (47.5%). “Damion King has gone to another level,” Cooper said. “He is a kid that just took off.”

THE TOURNAMENT DRAW: By clinching its first PAC title since 2009, Thomas More enters the NCAA tournament by playing No. 23-ranked Guilford (23-5) on Friday at 5 p.m. The game will be held at No. 7-ranked Marietta (24-4), who hosts Calvin (17-10) on Friday at 8 p.m. The two winners will meet on Saturday. “We were pleased to see we had a neutral site game as opposed to a first-round road game,” Cooper said.

THE 15-YEAR DROUGHT: The Saints are trying to become the first PAC men’s team to win an NCAA tournament game since Bethany’s first-round win over Pitt-Bradford in 2002. Saint Vincent was unable to win in the first round in each of the last four years. “We’re hoping our guys return ready to help the PAC more than anything,” Cooper said.

THE OPPONENT: Guilford, champion of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, is making its fifth NCAA Tournament appearance and its first since 2010. The Quakers are led by a pair of sophomore forwards in Carson Long (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Alston Thompson (11.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg). They rank third in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 61.0 points per game, and eighth in the nation with a +9.4 average rebound margin. “They’re very well coached, athletic and strong. They can disrupt offenses similar to the way Thiel does with their length and athleticism,” said Cooper, whose team led the PAC in scoring offense (78.8), average scoring (+9.7) and rebound (+5.4) margins. “They rebound the ball as well as anybody we’ve seen.”

THE PREPARATION: Since Cooper is in his fourth season at Thomas More, he wasn’t around in 2009 when the Saints last made the NCAA tournament. “Everything is a first for all of us,” Cooper said. “A lot of it relates to travel plans and practice plans, but hopefully Friday at 5 (p.m.) it’s going to come down to two 10-foot hoops and a ball and we’ll be ready to perform.”

THE GAME PLAN: No major tactical adjustments got the Saints this far, so the plan to win their 12th straight game is simple, according to Cooper: “Do it enthusiastically and confidently because that’s the way we’ve been doing it.”

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Thomas More’s National Title Defense Starts at Home

By Justin Zackal

2017 PAC Champion Thomas More Saints.

After Thomas More has a Eureka moment to start the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament, there could be Hope that the Saints will continue a run to defend their national title.

Those are two of the teams that will play at Thomas More’s Connor Convocation Center this weekend as the second-ranked Saints open with the tournament against Eureka (20-7) Friday night after Hope (22-4) plays Wisconsin-Whitewater (21-5). The two winners will meet Saturday in the second round to advance to the NCAA sectionals.

The Saints have been here before, undefeated and starting the national title quest at home. Last year, Thomas More won four games at home before winning it all. The Saints are 11-5 at home in the NCAA tournament since 2008, not including four wins from the 2015 national championship run that they later vacated.

Thomas More may benefit from being in a familiar spot, but there’s also the excitement of the unknown based on the dichotomy of the Saints’ lineup.

“There are some similarities, but they are different,” said Thomas More head coach Jeff Hans, citing the three returning starters, juniors Nikki Kiernan (14.7 ppg) and Abby Owings (16.0 ppg) and sophomore Madison Temple (15.7 ppg).

Thomas More senior Kristen Paul.

Of the seven remaining players who average 10 or more minutes per game, two are freshmen and the other five are averaging more or nearly double the minutes they did last year. The two new starters are sophomore Michaela Ware (4.0 ppg) and senior Kirsten Paul (6.9 ppg). Paul has quietly made a difference, according to Hans.

“She’s been healthy this year and she’s taken full advantage of her opportunities,” Hans said. “She’s been a silent leader for us and running the floor and getting some easy baskets, but also defensively in doing what she needs to do with the rebounding part of it.”

Thomas More’s specialty is how the Saints protect and distribute the ball. The Saints’ have led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio the last four years, including this year with a phenomenal 1.87 ratio that is a whopping 0.51 better than the next best team.

This statistic isn’t just a byproduct of success.

“It’s the culture of how we want to do things,” Hans said. “I think it is having players that buy into being unselfish knowing that if I set my teammate up for a better shot then the next time down they are going to set me up. That’s the style we want to play to make it fun for our guys.”

Ware leads the nation with a 4.55 assist-to-turnover ratio and Temple is fifth at 3.10.

Another statistic that Thomas More dominates is its 35.9+ average scoring margin. Amherst (32.3+) is the only other team with an average margin greater than 25.0+. Thomas More’s 13-point, 66-53 win over Saint Vincent in Saturday’s PAC tournament championship game was the Saint’s closest conference game all season and the tightest gap since a 77-70 win over Illinois Wesley on Dec. 29. Illinois Wesleyan (18-9) is the only NCAA tournament team TMC played this year.

Should the lack of close games and games against NCAA tournament-caliber teams concern Thomas More?

“No. I don’t think so,” Hans said. “Because of practice and our travel situation to go to Western PA and Bethany nine times, we’ve got to be mentally prepared and mentally tough on those days. I think we talk about that part of it, how that helps us.”

The driving distance for conference games — no opponent within 250 miles — is wider than the scoring margins.

In addition to Amherst, there are two other undefeated teams, Ohio Northern and St. Thomas. If the higher seeds advance, Thomas More and Ohio Northern would meet in the second sectional (national quarterfinal), which will be hosted by one of the participating institutions March 10-11. The national semifinals and finals will be held March 17-18 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Five Things to Watch in the PAC Men’s Basketball Tournament

By Justin Zackal

The 2016-17 PAC Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament starts tonight at 7 p.m. with the four higher seeds hosting the four lower seeds in the quarterfinal round, followed by the semifinals Thursday at 7 p.m. and the finals Saturday night at 7:30.

The PAC Sports Network will broadcast Tuesday’s Grove City at Thiel quarterfinal matchup. Check the broadcast schedule for details about later-round coverage.

To preview the tournament, here are five things to watch:

SAME TOP SEED, NEW PLAYERS

Saint Vincent junior guard Jason Capco.

Saint Vincent (19-6, 15-3 PAC) won the last four PAC titles, but this was supposed to be the year the Bearcats loosened their grip on the trophy after graduating their top five scorers from last year and having only one senior. But here they are, the top seed for the fourth time since 2013.

“Every year is different and every team is different,” said Saint Vincent coach D.P. Harris. “It’s new to most all these guys in the locker room. We’re the champion until somebody beats us, but we had turnover because of graduation. So we brought new guys in and they are finding their way through.”

Three of the top six scorers are first-year players and four started their playing careers at other schools, including junior guard Matt D’Amico (13.0 PPG), a first-year starter who transferred from Clarion before playing as a reserve for the Bearcats last year.

The Bearcats open against eighth-seeded Chatham (10-15, 6-12 PAC), a team they beat 87-53 and 75-61 this year.

HIGHER SEED TO WATCH

Awaiting Saint Vincent in the semifinals could be fourth-seeded Westminster (15-10, 11-7 PAC), which hosts fifth-seeded Bethany (14-11, 9-9 PAC) in the quarterfinals. As the seventh seed last year, the Titans advanced to the semifinals, losing to Saint Vincent, 70-65. Westminster is even better this year, enjoying its first winning season since 2007.

“Our goal is to move on further than we did last year,” said Westminster coach Kevin Siroki. “That means getting to the finals and, who knows, once you get to the finals anything can happen.”

Westminster is a tough out for any team in the PAC because they are good both on the inside and the outside. The Titans are the only team to rank in the top three in 3-point shooting percentage (35.3) and rebounding (39.3 per game) this year, led by junior forwards Deontay Scott and Jarret Vrabel, who rank first and third in the PAC with 9.4 and 8.0 rebounds per game. Although, they lost twice against Saint Vincent this year, 89-68 on Jan. 14 and on Saturday 73-66.

“I expect to see Westminster come back up the road Thursday night,” Harris said. “They are a tough matchup. They shoot it so well and it’s hard to beat a team three times in a year.”

LOWER SEED TO WATCH

Grove City junior forward Andrew Beckman.

Because the teams reseed each round, any upset in the quarterfinals would prevent Westminster from playing Saint Vincent. One likely team is sixth-seeded Grove City (12-13, 8-10 PAC) who plays at third-seeded Thiel (15-8, 11-7 PAC). Thiel has played without its top two scorers the last three games, PAC leading scorer Tyriek Burton (18.0 PPG) and Josh Lumbus (12.0 PPG).

“I don’t know if they are going to be back for the tournament or not, but they are really good inside,” said Grove City head coach Steve Lamie. “Really big, very strong, great defensive team.”

Grove City is the best defensive team in the PAC, limiting teams to 66.0 points per game. They’ll have to deal with junior forward Clandell Cetoute, who averages 9.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, with double-doubles in his last two games, including 11 and 11 in a 65-60 win over Grove City.

“Our defense has been really good this year,” Lamie said. “That transcends being away or home.”

“Grove City always runs their system really well and they’re tough to play against,” said Siroki, whose Westminster team beat Grove City in overtime Jan. 11 and lost by five on Feb. 8.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Like the streaky nature of tournament play, Lamie said a 3-point shooting specialist could change any game. It’s just tough to predict which player that will be. More consistent play takes place underneath.

Saint Vincent’s 6-foot-5, 245-pound forward Tom Kromka (11.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG) is coming off a 15-point, 13-rebound performance against Westminster Saturday. He also scored 14 points against Thomas More Feb. 15.

“Kromka has changed this league,” Harris said. “He is a force, he’s big, he’s physical.”

Saint Vincent may also need him to enter the starting lineup if 6-6 forward Austin Dedert can’t play this week. Dedert left Saturday’s game at Westminster with an ankle injury, making the win even more important for Saint Vincent knowing it can win without a key player.

WHO WILL GET HOT?

Second-seeded Thomas More (19-6, 15-3 PAC) is clearly the hottest team, having won eight straight. But will that carry over into the tournament against seventh-seeded Geneva (10-15, 7-11 PAC)? Teams play more desperate in the tournament with the season on the line.

Here’s what three coaches had to say about tournament play:

“We always say Tuesday is the get-through game, Thursday is the get-there game and Saturday everybody wants to win a championship,” Harris said. “Everybody plays their guts out. For us, we get everybody’s best game.”

“It’s survive and advance. That’s what it’s all about,” Siroki said. “All you need to do is win three games, that’s the great thing about it. Everyone’s played each other twice in the league. It’s a matter of stopping runs and executing. Everybody knows which plays everyone is running and who the players are.”

“If you play well for five days, you’re immortal,” Lamie added. “You can redeem a bad season. It’s not like we’ve played poorly; we’ve been up and down. But (winning the tournament) could make a decent season really, really great. Maybe that is more of a motivation than anything else.”

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