Teams set for new conference tipoff

Bobby Scott, Sports Editor

Pitt-Johnstown men’s and women’s basketball players are starting their season with chips on their shoulders to start their inaugural season in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference play.

The Mountains Cats have been picked by the conference’s coaches to finish fifth of eight teams in the Western Division.

The division includes perennial power Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which has won three of the last four conference titles.

The Lady Cats were picked by the conference’s coaches to finish last in the Western Division.

The division includes Gannon University which has been in the conference championship games twice in the last four years and won the title in 2010.  Edinboro University is also in the division and won back-to-back conference championships in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

Both teams kicked off their seasons earlier this week with non-conference games. The Mountains Cats started at home Monday against Penn State-Altoona.

The Lady Cats started Tuesday on the road against Davis & Elkins (W. Va.) College (a former West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe).

The men are led by three seniors–Andrew Cressler, Bill Luther and Paul Weatherly, all of whom are to play big parts in the team’s success this season.

The team is missing its two leading scorers from last year–Nick Novak and Jordan Miller, who both graudated.

Men’s head coach Bob Rukavina–who is entering his 25th season as head coach–has recruited a Division I transfer from Northern Kentucky, sophomore guard Nate Snodgrass.

Bill Luther along with junior forward Ian Vescovi will be counted on to produce in the paint.

“We are bringing in a lot of new players, but we are also bringing back four starters, so we want to develop chemistry with the new guys and be competitive in our division,” Vescovi said.

“We have a very talented offensive team so, if we can continue to improve our defense, we will be a difficult matchup for any team.”

Luther was a big contributor to the Mountain Cat offense as he was the third leading scorer with 12 points per game and was ranked No. 15 in the country in 3-point field goal percentage (44.1 percent).

“We are just trying to get better every day (while entering the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference),” Luther said.

The roster has four freshmen and a transfer.  All have yet to record any minutes on the court as Mountain Cats.

The Lady Cats come into the season with much of the same looking as to replace key components to last year’s success, losing their head coach and leading scorer.

Mike Drahos is in and Sasha Palmer is out as head coach and last year’s leading scorer, Kaitlynn Fratz, transferred to California University of Pennsylvania.

Senior guard Grace Hyland is one of three seniors who are looking to prove their preseason ranking wrong.

“(The team has) the mentality that we are competing for a championship this year,” she said.

“A lot of people are underestimating us because we are in a new conference with a new coach, but all of these changes have only made us more excited for the season to start.”

Hyland said that Drahos and assistant coach Liz Flooks have made an instant progressive influence on the team.

“Coach Drahos and coach Flooks were a great fit for our program, and we are all anxious to get the season underway.”

Senior forward Rachel Johnson led the team in rebounding with 8.3 rebounds per game and finished second in steals (44) and assists (40).

“A lot of people do not think we will go far because of our new coaching staff but (our coaches) have really had a positive impact on the program already,” she said.  “We all have the mind-set that we are competing for a championship this year.”

Johnson said that changing the style of play will be beneficial to the team’s success.

“Coach Drahos wants us to play a fast game with a lot of transition and motion offense while coach Palmer wanted us to play a dribble drive,” she said.

A motion offense is more team-oriented while the dribble drive is more individual play, and it opens up their outside shooting and inside game.

“It just depends on what the defense gives us,” Johnson said.  “If they let us shoot outside, that is great because we have some great shooters, but, if they take that away, we can also go inside.”