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Penn-Trafford grad Bortak leads Juniata into NCAA tourney

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Joe Bortak is a sophomore leader at Juniata.
Joe Bortak is a sophomore leader at Juniata.
Joe Bortak is a 6-foot-7 standout for the Juniata team.
Joe Bortak is a 6-foot-7 standout for the Juniata team.

The Juniata College men's volleyball team will compete in the NCAA Division III national championship tournament this weekend. Year-in and year-out, the squad is a national powerhouse, and these days Jeannette-area native Joe Bortak is a big reason why.

The Penn-Trafford High School graduate is a 6-foot, 7-inch sophomore middle blocker and one of the very top players on the squad. Juniata head coach Kevin Moore remembers the day he first met Bortak during an on-campus recruiting visit.

“It reminded me of the movie ‘Blue Chips' where Shaquille O'Neal steps into the coach's office and has to duck under the door,'” recalled Moore. “I thought, ‘Oh man. This is a game-changer.' When you see Joe for the first time, you can clearly see' he's an athlete. He's 6-7, broad shoulders. He's got that frame that screams ‘athlete.'”

Moore was then in his first year as Juniata's coach, and he envisioned building the program around Bortak. From that point on, Moore was focused on recruiting the local star. He called high school volleyball coaches throughout the region to get more info.

“I recruited Joe as hard as I ever recruited anyone,” said Moore. “I may have pursued Joe harder than I did my wife.”

The interest was mutual.

“I thought it would be a great fit,” said Bortak. “Juniata has a great reputation for both academics and volleyball.”

The recruiting efforts paid off, and Bortak has had every bit the impact that Moore expected.

He started from the instant he arrived on campus and led the team in kills (318) and blocks (122) and was second in all of Division III with .488 hitting percentage last season. Bortak led Juniata to a 28-11 overall mark and a Continental Volleyball Conference title and was named the CVC freshman of the year.

“It wasn't that big of an adjustment with Coach Moore guiding me along the way and three of the best seniors out there with me,” he said. “I just went out there and played volleyball.”

This year has been more of the same for Bortak and Juniata. The Eagles have a 24-11 overall record, went 6-2 in the CVC regular season — including several matches against Division I teams — and went on to take the post-season CVC title. The biggest difference this year is now Bortak is viewed as a veteran leader.

“This year, Joe's been somewhat relied upon,” said Moore. “We don't have any seniors on the roster . . . to have a sophomore like Joe with the experience he gained last year, that brings a lot to this team. He continues to play at a high level and we lean on Joe an awful lot. When other teams prepare to play Juniata, it's no secret, their No. 1 goal is stopping Joe.”

Bortak again leads the team in blocks (115) and kill percentage (.459) and is second in kills (279) and points (360).

Beating the University of California-Santa Cruz in the CVC tournament title match on March 13 to take the conference crown paved the way for this week's national championship tournament, which will be held in Rochester, N.Y. Juniata plays Rivier in the opener this Friday at 8 p.m.

“We have very high expectations of ourselves,” said Bortak. “Our goal is to win-out.”

Cortazzo rolls as Gannon falls

The slide continues for the Gannon University softball team. After starting the year 19-2, the Division II Lady Knights dropped both ends of a double-header against Mercyhurst last Thursday, giving them six straight losses and a 19-8 overall record entering the week.

Despite the skid, Jeannette grad Kirstie Cortazzo is continuing her impressive season.

The junior second baseman had a double and scored a run in game one against Mercyhurst. She then had a single in game two.

Cortazzo is second on the squad with 23 RBIs and third in batting average (.400), slugging percentage (.588) and on-base percentage (.463).

Gannon had a double header with East Stroudsburg scheduled for last Saturday cancelled. The team played Slippery Rock in a double header Tuesday but the game ended too late for this edition. Next up is a double header at Edinboro on Friday.

Track and field

Jeannette grad Nick Spino, a senior on the Division II Seton Hill University track team, finished fifth in the 500-meter hurdles at the Ed Fry Invitational at IUP on Saturday with a time of 56.63 seconds.

The previous week, at the Bucknell Bison Outdoor Classic, he finished 13th in the 400-hurdles with a time of 57.63. Spino and Seton Hill will compete in the Penn Relays this weekend in Philadelphia.

Also at the Ed Fry Invitational, Jeannette-area native Erin Loughner, a junior at Division II Clarion, finished fifth in the high jump with a leap of 1.57 meters.

The Penn-Trafford grad also finished 12th in the javelin with a throw of 32.11 meters.

Clarion and Loughner will take part in the Paul Kaiser Invitational at Shippensburg this weekend.

Brian Knavish is a freelance writer.

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