Defending MAC Champions Look to Repeat Success

Josh Horton, Reporter

Last March the men’s and women’s basketball teams made the Division III NCAA Championship Tournament for the first time in school history, and eight months later, the goal is to do it again.

Both teams lost key players, but the coaches aren’t worried about the teams they will put on the floor this season.

With the resignation of women’s head coach Mark Griffith last January, Athletic Director Dave Martin took over, leading the women to a Freedom Conference Championship and an automatic tournament bid.

First year head coach Allison Kern takes the helm of the women’s team. For Kern, it was the perfect opportunity.

“Honestly the timing could not have been better,” Kern said. “My athletic director told me about the opening and as soon as I got on campus I fell in love with the place. The campus is just amazing.”

Kern walks into a unique situation. The foundation is already set, and many key players are back from last season. She just has to get her team to play the brand of basketball she wants them to play.

“I have a great group of players,” Kern said. “I am very, very lucky to walk into a program with such great athletes. We have so much talent and we are going to surprise a lot of people this year.”

The women were picked fourth overall in the pre-season MAC coaches’ poll, behind Kings’, Eastern, and DeSales. The Cougars defeated Kings’ last season to win the Freedom Conference Championship.

The Cougars return stars Hannah Seely and Tyann McDaniel from last year’s 17-11 team. Both players averaged double digits and were big contributors on defense.

Also returning is junior guard Lauren Smicherko who had a very strong second half of the season last year. In addition to Smicherko, the Cougars return Kayla Sileo, Katie Drayton and Caitlin Kessler.

“We get mostly everyone back from last season,” Kern said. “But I told them all this year we were starting fresh. I didn’t even watch film because I wanted to make sure I give everyone a fair shot and I like what I am seeing so far. We have a lot of girls that are going to contribute.”

The two big losses from last season’s lineup are 1,000-point scorers Christine Marks and Jesse Robinson. Marks broke numerous records and notched accolades such as Freedom Conference Player of the Year and was a First Team All-Freedom selection.

Like Marks, Robinson was a huge part of the Cougars success just a season ago. She was a threat on both offense and defense and will be a very tough player for the Cougars to replace.

The Cougars will be undersized this season with the loss of Marks. Selly, Sileo and Kessler are expected to take over as the post players this season, while Drayton chips in at small forward. Smicherko and McDaniel will again handle the guard positions.

“It’s no secret that we are going to be smaller than some teams,” Kern said with a smile. “But, we are going to be very, very scrappy and we are going to hustle harder than any other team.”

On offense the undersized Cougars will look to run teams out of the gym by getting in transition.

The women aren’t the only ones with big losses. The men graduated two 1,000-point scorers in Ethan Eichorst and Jeff Slanovec.

“They are huge losses for us,” men’s basketball coach Trevor Woodruff said. “Not only did we lose solid basketball players, but we lost two of our biggest leaders. A lot of our guys looked to Jeff and Ethan for advice on the floor and we are looking for our new leaders now.”

Although Slanovec will not be suiting up this season, he does return to the bench as an assistant coach.

“It’s huge to be able to bring him back,” Woodruff said. “[Slanovec] turned himself into a very nice college basketball player and he has such a high basketball IQ that he will be a real asset on the bench.

The Cougars do return one of the best shooters in the conference in junior guard Matt Greene. In addition to his scoring, Woodruff also looks for him to step up and be a leader on and off the court.

“Matty has been a terrific basketball player for us and he is going to make a great coach someday,” Woodruff said. “I expect him to kind of be a veteran leader and take over this team. For as talented as we are, we are still very young.”

The Cougars also return senior Steve Artzerounian, sophomores Joe Busacca, Anthony Sergio and Cael Evans. Woodruff feels a big key to the season is everyone staying healthy and that is one thing that has been rough for Artzerounian.

“Steve is a big part of this team, and unfortunately for him in all of his years here he has only played about one full season,” Woodruff said. “If everyone stays healthy we are going to be a very tough team to beat this season.”

Woodruff is also excited about this year’s freshman class. Hazleton Area standout Travis Buckner is expected to be a big contributor.

“Like I said, we are extremely young,” Woodruff said. “But, we are also extremely talented and I think we got some great freshman this season and I am excited to see how they do.”

Like in years past, Woodruff’s starting five may not be his top five. However, he has a reason for each lineup he puts out on the floor.

“I don’t think we have ever necessarily started our best five guys,” Woodruff said. “It’s all about figuring out which guys play best in which situations and if that means one of our best players is going to come off the bench then that is what we are going to do.”

The Cougars were picked to finish second in the Freedom Conference Pre-Season Coaches Poll. DeSales is the only team picked to finish higher this season.

The Cougars were 21-7 before finishing with a tough loss in the tournament opener to a very tough New York University Valiant team.

[email protected]