Winning tradition fuels St. Vincent men's basketball program
Winning breeds winning.
That might be the best way to sum up the success up the St. Vincent men's basketball team, which has won three straight Presidents' Athletic Conference titles and is showing no signs of weakening its stranglehold on the league.
“Since we've been there, we haven't known a lot of losing,” said swingman Pat Jones, one of five seniors who have been with the program for all three championships. “We've been fortunate enough to have guys in front of us pave the way. We've learned from them and been able to keep up the tradition.”
The Bearcats (10-3, 6-0 PAC), who are 47-7 in league play the past four seasons under coach D.P. Harris, are going for the conference's first four-peat since Washington & Jefferson from 1991-95.
“I think the time we put in in the offseason is what separates us,” said senior guard JC Howard, a four-year starter from North Allegheny. “We hold each other accountable. As soon as the season is done, we're getting in the weight room. We're getting in the gym to get shots up.”
A family atmosphere is more than just coachspeak at St. Vincent. Senior guard Ben Klimchock (Greensburg Central Catholic) is the third of his siblings to play for the Bearcats, following brother Chris and sister Laura.
Jones' father and uncle played for St. Vincent, and his grandfather also went there. Jones said the bond with his teammates strengthened last season when he dealt with the death of his mother from breast cancer.
“I really couldn't have asked for a better band of brothers to have around me in that time of incredible suffering,” said Jones, who lives in Frostburg, Md. “That's something that nobody is ever ready for and nobody every plans for.”
That brotherhood translates into on-court chemistry, Howard said, with starters and bench players embracing their roles.
Senior guard Jaylon Bell, who spent his first two seasons at Saint Leo (Fla.), leads the team with 15.9 points, 4.2 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
“I think he's the best player in the conference and easily one of the best players in the country,” Jones said. “I thank God every day I don't have to play against him, and I get to play with him.”
Jones, a second-team All-PAC choice last season, averages 15.2 points and 5.3 rebounds and leads the team with 18 3-pointers. Harris calls him among the most improved players he has coached.
“He has added something to his game every year,” Harris said. “He was a skinny guy, and he added 20 pounds. He's always been able to shoot, but he developed a pull-up game. Now he's a get-to-the-basket guy.”
Howard, who averages 10.1 points, is the team's most experienced player with 84 career starts. He typically has the ball in his hands at the end of games and has hit at least seven game-winning shots. Pressure? Howard said he doesn't feel it.
“I'm not going to get this opportunity again, so what do I have to lose?” he said. “This is an opportunity to make a great memory for myself, for my friends.”
Other key contributors from WPIAL schools include 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior Bobby Swartwout (Butler), a former Cal (Pa.) baseball player, and 6-6 sophomore Austin Dedert (Plum).
St. Vincent's depth could play a factor in achieving the program's next goal: success in the NCAA Division III Tournament. The Bearcats have lost their opening game the past three years, but Harris said they're ready to “break through a glass ceiling.”
“Maybe we can start a new tradition,” Harris said.