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Homer-Center's Skinner ecstatic to play Division I basketball

| Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

HOMER CITY -- Katelyn Skinner waited all summer for the University of Hartford to make her dreams come true.

As other schools imposed deadlines on her to make a decision on college and the pressure started to mount, Skinner's patience paid off when she got the call she was waiting for a few weeks ago.

She finally had an offer to be a Hartford Hawk.

"I've never been that excited, I really haven't," said Skinner, a 1,000-point scorer at guard for Homer-Center. "I couldn't yell or anything on the phone, but I was just extremely happy and overjoyed. I couldn't wait to tell my mom and some of my close friends about the offer because they knew how much Hartford meant to me. It was a really great feeling."

The 5-foot-10 Skinner, who will start her senior year at Homer-Center this fall, recently made a verbal commitment to play basketball at the University of Hartford, a Division I America East school in Connecticut. Skinner cannot sign with the school until Nov. 9.

Skinner, the daughter of Stanley and Rita Skinner of Homer City, had a number of offers from Division I and Division II schools this summer, but she knew Hartford was where she wanted to be after visiting the campus in the spring. She immediately fell in love with the campus as well as the coaching staff, led by head coach Jennifer Rizzotti.

"I just got the sense that she'll be able to teach me so much, and after my four years of playing there, I would be the best player I could be because of what she had to teach me," Skinner said. "She's just so cool, and she gets in with the players and has fun. She's a very down-to-earth lady. I know on the court she's all business, but off the court I just know that I'm going to have a great time and experience a lot of great things up there."

As Skinner waited for a scholarship offer from Hartford this summer, a number of other Division I schools made offers. Some of those offers had deadlines too because the schools wanted to move on to other players if Skinner wasn't going to accept.

That made Skinner start to feel some pressure until she got the news she was hoping for from Rizzotti.

"They're very patient people, and they take their time with their decisions, and when they offered, I just knew it was the perfect place for me," Skinner said. "If I would go to another college I would always have a regret of not going to Hartford, so that was a major deciding factor for me."

Despite Skinner's excitement over the offer, she didn't accept immediately. She waited until the following weekend when she traveled to Hartford and met with the team Aug. 13.

"(Rizzotti) didn't pressure me or say I had a deadline or anything. She wanted to get me up on campus, so I could meet the whole team," Skinner said. "I had a great day. I got to watch practice and everything, and I just knew that I was ready to make my decision, and I'd rather verbal in person to her instead of over the phone."

With her verbal commitment, Skinner is poised to join a program that has experienced a lot of success in Rizzotti's 11 years as the head coach.

Hartford has won four America East regular season championships in the last five years along with along with four tournament championships in eight years. Rizzotti has led the team to five NCAA Tournament appearances.

"When you look at the success that they've had over the years, it's very appealing because I'm a player that wants to go and have a successful team," Skinner said. "Looking over how many championships they've won in the America East, that says a lot about the coaching staff and how much they know about the game. They know how to prepare to win, and (Rizzotti) has described that she kind of has the secret recipe down for winning, and that's very important to me."

During her three years at Homer-Center, Skinner has helped turn around the program. The year before she arrived, the Wildcats won just four games, but since then they've qualified for the postseason all three years, culminating with a trip to the PIAA Class A semifinals last season.

Each year, Skinner has led the team in scoring, peaking with 18.4 points per game last season. Skinner's performance earned her a first-team selection on the Associated Press Class A All-State team.

"I think from her freshman year to present, her game has improved every year, and quite honestly, after watching her in summer league, I think she improved tremendously from last year," said Homer-Center head coach Tom Lasher. "She is one of the hardest-working girls I've ever had the privilege to coach, so she's worked hard for what she's getting."

Looking at her history

While Homer-Center's run through the state playoffs helped Skinner gain extra exposure, it was her play in AAU ball during the spring and summer that really started to draw in the Division I schools.

Skinner had played for the PA Blue Thunder team, based in Indiana County, since she was in fifth grade, and Skinner credited coaches Jim McLoughlin and Doug Altemus for teaching her the basics of basketball.

This year, however, Skinner moved to the PA Pride team, based out of Altoona. There, she played with several players from the Bishop Guilfoyle team that defeated Homer-Center in the district finals and state semifinals last year. Skinner was coached by Sam Pierce, who had coached men's basketball at the Division I level as an assistant at Robert Morris University.

"There was just a lot more intense practices and (Pierce) ran practices at the college speed," Skinner said. "He knew what to expect and how to get us ready, so a lot was preparation and that was the key to us being an elite AAU team."

As part of PA Pride, Skinner got to participate in high-profile AAU tournaments in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Virginia Commonwealth University.

"All we really did was put her on a platform for her to make plays," Pierce said. "This is a great kid. She's a basketball kid, a gym rat. She'll probably step in (at Hartford) and make an impact in her first or second year. ... She just moves differently than most kids. I knew the first time I saw her that she had the potential to be a Division I kid."

Hartford first contacted Skinner after the VCU tournament in April and as the AAU season went along, more schools started to contact Skinner. Pierce said up to 11 Division I schools were interested in signing her.

"It was really crazy at times, very stressful on me and my family," Skinner said of the recruiting process. "They always gave me their opinions of the schools, and it was hard calling everyone back sometimes and trying to have a summer. (My family) would always put in their two cents about the whole process and who they like and they think would be good for me, but they always said that in the end it's my decision. I had to be happy where I went."

Skinner said she received help with the recruiting process from Pierce and Homer-Center assistant coach Kelli Zerfoss.

"(Pierce) was always on the phone helping me out, calling and getting the scoop I didn't know, and he called so many times to make sure I was doing OK," Skinner said. "(Zerfoss) came to a lot of my events, and she's been a trooper throughout the whole recruiting process. She's like my coach, best friend and other mother kind of person."

In the end, Skinner chose Hartford over other Division I schools such as Akron, Albany, Loyola (Maryland) and St. Joseph's as well as Division II schools like Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Shippensburg.

"I've always been a person who wanted to play at the highest level I could," Skinner said. "I would never want to have any regrets with where I went to college to play, so it's always been my dream since I was a little girl to play Division I, and to have that happen is just a dream come true. I'm so thankful and very fortunate for my position."

Once Skinner finishes her career at Homer-Center, she is hoping to make an immediate impact at Hartford. Skinner is confident that she will because Rizzotti likes to use a lot of players in the course of a game.

"She loves fresh legs, so she doesn't play kids 35 out of 40 minutes a game," Skinner said. "She loves to rotate and get everyone in. She's confident with the players she recruits because they're very strong players."

It's a trip of more than six hours to get from Homer City to Hartford, but Skinner was not overly concerned with the distance from home.

"I'm going to miss my family, I'm sure, and my friends, and I'd love for Hartford to be closer so people could come to games more," Skinner said, "but I know that my family and my close friends are going to make an effort to come watch me and coach (Rizzotti) even said that when she recruits players that are far away, she'll try and schedule some games down this way so I can have fans come to the game and have that experience."

While Skinner's trip to Hartford is a long way distance-wise, it's also a long way symbolically, as Skinner completes a journey from a small, rural school in Pennsylvania to the highest level of women's college basketball.

"It's really remarkable to look back at where I started and where I'm at now," Skinner said. "All the long hours that I've put in and every bump in the road that I went through, it's just been a really long ride. I never really thought that I would actually get a full ride to a Division I school. It just shows that if you put in the work and you want it badly enough that you can achieve your dreams. Especially with basketball, when you have people support you like they have supported me, anything's possible."

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