Gannon's Elite Eight prospects excite Papich
Gannon University junior Jenny Papich is articulate. She puts plenty of thought into questions about her college experience.
The bio-chemical engineering major enjoys talking about basketball, but she is just as enthusiastic when discussing other things — such as what she sees herself doing after college.
“I'd like to work in the prosthetics field or something related to quality-of-life technology,” said Papich, a Fox Chapel graduate. “I could see myself making some device that'll improve people's lives.”
In this case, basketball has become that device, at least for Gannon fans, who have backed the women's basketball team all the way to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
A 6-foot-1 forward, Papich has been a major contributor to the team's playoff run.
“I feel like any college athlete would dream about being in this type of situation,” said Papich, a former Cager Classic MVP. “(Having personal success) is not something I expected. I knew this was a good program. We knew this team had the potential, and it's exciting to be in this position.”
A Final Four berth on the line, Gannon (31-4) will take on returning national runner-up Ashland (34-1) at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bill Greehey Arena in San Antonio.
The Golden Knights won the Atlantic Regional final, 50-47, over California (Pa.) to reach the round of eight.
Papich knows all about lengthy playoff runs. When she was a junior at Fox Chapel, she helped lead the Foxes to the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game. She averaged a double-double as a senior.
Fox Chapel lost to Mt. Lebanon in the final, the first of three straight playoff defeats to the Blue Devils.
Papich had interest from other colleges, but put her faith in Gannon. It's been a perfect match.
“A lot of my friends have gone to places where they complained about coaching or they were concerned with playing time,” Papich said. “I felt very comfortable here from the start. We have a bunch of girls like that, and they're so talented. They're willing to give themselves up for the name on the front of their jersey.”
Papich leads the Knights in scoring (12.5 ppg) and also averages 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals. She has 1,098 career points, which puts her in the top 20 on the school's career scoring list.
Her play garnered PSAC-West Player of the Year honors.
Gannon coach Cleve Wright said he knew Papich would be an impact player from the time he started to recruit her.
“She had good size and length, and she made hustle plays,” Wright said. “After talking with her on the phone, it was obvious she was as special off the court as she was on.”
Gannon, whose March Madness fun lasted two rounds last season, has leaned on Papich on both ends of the court.
A pure post player at Fox Chapel, Papich has developed an outside game and often defends the other team's top guards.
“She is a mismatch for opponents because of her speed,” Wright said. “She gets up and down the floor extremely well. She can handle the ball in the open floor, which allows us to push the ball in transition much faster than most teams who have to get the ball to a guard.”
Papich said the team has dealt with the natural pressures that come with being one of the country's top teams.
“When you're as young as we are and you're having this type of season, there are so many turns you can take,” Papich said. “What's so special about our team is how well we've coped with adversity. If we hadn't coped as well as we have, we might not be this far.”
Papich said the team's adjusting to an extended season, which can be as satisfying as it is grueling, and a short memory have aided the cause.
“We have girls coming in here off of seasons that are 18, 19, 20 games long,” she said. “When you get this far, there's more media attention, more pressure to perform well; so many more people pay attention. You have people critiquing stats, refs making certain calls — it all can lead to a lot of stress.
“We have done a very good job handling all of that and moving on. Our philosophy is (the) next play; focus on now.”
Papich is proud of her accolades on the court, but she lights up when she talks about earning Academic All-American status.
“Sorry, I'm a little boring,” she said with a laugh. “I like to study a lot.”
Papich carries a 3.96 GPA — all with a six-day-a-week practice schedule.
“And lifting three days a week,” she said. “Grades are one thing here that we do brag about.”
Gannon lost to Ashland in its second regular-season game of the season, 70-59, in the Disney Tip-Off Classic in Anaheim, Calif.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.