Ford City junior transforms into post presence
From the way she pops open at the right moments to the way she pivots with the basketball and pump-fakes to fool defenders, Ford City junior Allyson Cujas is a smooth operator in the paint.
But before the 5-foot-10 forward developed into one of Armstrong County's best post presences, she dealt with her physical limitations and fears.
Cujas, Ford City's leading scorer (15.1 ppg) and rebounder (9.0 rpg), has learned to embrace the subtle pushing and bumping that goes on below the backboard. She once viewed herself as too lanky and frail to thrive that close to the hoop. But as she matured and built muscle early in her high school career, Cujas, capable of handling guard responsibilities, began to consider the paint her favorite place on the court.
“At first, it wasn't like this for me,” she said. “I used to be a very weak player. I always remember that when I look at what I do now.
“I don't want to say I love the rough play, but I love how it's really competitive down in the post, and I know you have to fight for what you want to do.”
Ford City coach Al Davis remembers the fifth-grade version of Cujas: All arms and legs, a bit awkward athletically. But, with her father's encouragement, she devoted herself to the sport. Cujas studied instructional DVDs made by Ganon Baker, a former standout guard at Duquesne in 1991-92. While other young girls showed up at open gyms simply to shoot around, Cujas went through structured drills that Patrick Cujas supervised.
“Ally is somebody that has always had to work hard,” Davis said. “She's not like the natural athlete. So her dedication to the game and her working hard every year have made the difference. You actually have to tell her not to work so much, slow her down a little bit.”
By eighth grade, Cujas grew strong enough to physically contend with opposing big girls. But she still needed to mentally embrace the idea of playing tough in the post.
A relentless self-critic, Cujas forced herself to adjust rather than settle in as a tall guard, where she showed promise because of her dribbling and shooting skills. Involvement with AAU programs allowed her to encounter other tall, talented players, who provided competition and encouragement.
“I started to work past that initial fear and that resentment toward getting contact and getting physical and turned it into something where it's like, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun,' ” she said.
“You have to be hard on yourself. It's probably bad how hard I am on myself, but if you want to be good at something and want to improve, you've got to be at least a little hard on yourself.”
As a freshman, Cujas averaged 1.7 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. Last season, those totals increased to 11.1 and 6.3.
Her transformation into a game-changing forward is far from complete. Davis desires more toughness, both physically and mentally. Cujas still considers herself undersized for the position, particularly compared to college-level players.
To play at the next level is a priority for Cujas, who wants to balance athletics with an academic prowess that has her ranked first in Ford City's junior class. Division II and III programs already have expressed interest.
Though comfortable and confident in the post, Cujas is serious about ensuring her inside game continues to evolve.
“Ever since I was little, it's been an uphill battle with basketball,” she said. “It's that challenge about it that I love, just the fact that I have to keep working at it to be good at what I do.”