By Justin Zackal
Thomas More finally reached the summit last year. After achieving four Sweet Sixteen appearances in the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament, relatively early exits in 2012 and 2013 and an Elite Eight in 2014, the Saints won a national championship in 2015.
Thomas More won the 2014-15 National Championship.
But to the Saints, this is not the peak of the mountain but rather a foundation to build on.
They are still climbing.
“Winning the title has changed the confidence because you get close like we’ve had in the past,” said fifth-year head coach Jeff Hans, who mentioned the team’s tournament track record before getting “over the hump” with its deep run in 2014. “The confidence is there that, yes, it can be done and we’re going to do what we need to do to achieve that again. We’re just trying to build on it.”
All 13 underclassmen on last year’s roster returned this year, including four starters, but a freshman will likely fill the vacated spot in the lineup.
“We’re deeper,” Hans said, who estimates a rotation of anywhere from 10-12 players seeing minutes. “There won’t be a lot of drop off when we want to sub.”
There will not be a lot of drop off from Thomas More and the rest of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. The Saints haven’t lost a league game the last three years and they dropped only three PAC games in the last eight seasons (145-3). They are easily the favorite to win their 10th straight PAC championship in 2015-16.
“This league would be characterized as probably more blue collar,” Hans said. “It’s a lot of hard-working players and coaches who understand the game. It’s getting better. The level of players, the skill, the athleticism continue to grow.”
THREE SENIOR STARS
Sydney Moss, Senior, G, Thomas More – The Division I transfer who played at the University of Florida as a freshman has won the Division III National Player of the Year the last two years. Moss led the nation in scoring in both of her years at Thomas More with 27.8 and 24.2 points per game, respectively.
Kathryn Erbelding, Senior, F, Grove City – The PAC Defensive Player of the Year last year averaged 15.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and a league-high 3.4 steals per game. “She’s a tough-nosed player,” Hans said. “You won’t get a lot of freebies with her.”
Jaclyn Watkins, Senior, F, Thiel – Another six-footer, Watkins is a strong post player who ranked third in the PAC in scoring (17.6 ppg) and fourth in rebounds (8.3 rpg).
TWO RISING STARS
Abby Owings, Sophomore, G, Thomas More – Named first-team all-PAC as a freshman last year, Owings ranked second on the team in scoring (11.1 ppg). She was a player who’s gotten a lot better and gained more confidence since last year, according to Hans.
Kelsea Daugherty, Sophomore, F, Bethany – The reigning PAC Freshman of the Year averaged 16.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and registered a league-high 11 double-doubles.
ONE-LINERS FOR EACH TEAM
Thomas More (33-0, 18-0 PAC in 2014-15) will run opponents ragged with its depth, which also includes sophomore F Nikki Kiernan, who despite coming off the bench last year was the team’s third-leading scorer with 10.9 ppg.
Saint Vincent (22-5, 15-3 PAC) loses Taylor Mathers and her 18.5 scoring average, but the PAC runners-up have a nice group of young guards returning, led by junior Mara Benvenuti (9.1 ppg), who, according to head coach Jimmy Petruska, is a rare all-conference player who is more regarded for her unselfish play.
Washington & Jefferson (21-8, 13-5) deserved better than a third-place finish after winning 21 games last year, but if the Presidents finish higher this year it be on the shoulders of senior G/F Beka Bellhy, a first-team all-PAC selection who averaged 16.4 points per game a year ago.
Waynesburg (15-12, 12-6) lost its all-PAC back court, but the Yellow Jackets are still deep at the guard position, led by senior PG Lauren Blair, who ranked second in the league last year with 4.2 assists per game.
Grove City (14-12, 10-8) will continue to improve under third-year head coach Chelle Fuss after posting its first winning PAC record since 2010 and tying the 2011 team for the most overall wins since 2005.
Bethany (12-14, 8-10) will likely emerge into a winning team this year with all five starters returning and six of the top scorers back.
Westminster (7-20, 5-13) also returns all five starters from last year, but the Titans have more ground to cover with a young team last year that scored a PAC-low 55.3 points per game.
Thiel (5-21, 4-14) is yet another team that returns all five starters, three of which are seniors, which will be relied on to improve a defense that gave up the most points per game in the PAC (76.1) in its second straight 5-21 season.
Chatham (6-19, 3-15) won as many games last year as it did the previous two seasons, but the Cougars would like to at least get back to winning five PAC games and 10 overall like they last did in 2011.
Geneva (4-21, 2-16) returns senior G Heidi Mann, an all-PAC honorable mention last year, but the Golden Tornadoes haven’t won more than three PAC games (or four games overall) in a season since becoming full PAC member in 2011-12.