PSNK women complete trying resurrection season
The quarters slipped by, and the minutes and seconds ticked off the clock during Thursday’s Penn State New Kensington women’s basketball game with Penn State Beaver.
Once the clock hit zero, it marked the end of a forgettable season that almost didn’t happen and a new beginning for a program that had been dormant for more than a decade.
“It’s been a rough road and definitely a challenging one,” said PSNK athletic director Megan Bratkovich, who was hired in the summer of 2017. “It’s been such a trial of bringing in one coach and then having to find someone new and having to recruit on campus.”
The Lions (0-8) finished the season winless, but it took many steps to get even that result.
The last 12 months for Bratkovich have been a series of trials. Last spring, she hired Mike Wagstaff to resurrect the program. Bratkovich alerted the Penn State University Athletic Conference that PSNK would field a team for the 2018-19 season. From that moment on, PSNK was locked into a PSUAC conference schedule.
Then there was the plot twist. Wagstaff stepped down before the start of the fall semester, leaving the cupboards bare with only one recruit committed. Coincidentally, that player ended up not playing this season.
With no coach, no players and the commitment to a PSUAC schedule, Bratkovich once again had to start at zero. Instead of having months to find a coach and put together a roster, she had weeks.
Bratkovich ended up cancelling the first half of the season and decided to focus the back half of the schedule. She struggled to find players, and landing a coach at the start of basketball season was easier said than done because most already were coaching teams.
But in early December, Bratkovich’s office phone rang. On the other end of the line was basketball coach Rich Marshall.
“He called me up and said, ‘Hey, I see you’re from Caldwell,’ and started naming people that I know,” Bratkovich said.
Before arriving at PSNK, Bratkovich served as the associate director of athletics at Caldwell, a Division II school in New Jersey. Marshall cut his teeth at Caldwell as coach of the Cougars. He was the first men’s basketball coach when the one-time all-girls school started the sport in 1987. He knew how to put together a program from scratch. And he was living close by in Mercer County.
“I was intrigued by the fact that it was a start-up like Caldwell,” Marshall said. “In Megan’s mind, she knew that I had been through the process of starting up a program.”
Marshall had many stops on the coaching trail. He was an assistant at Clemson in the early 1990s and coached at Florida Southern and Thiel in the late 1990s, among other stops. His most recent coaching job was a one-year stint as coach of the Ellwood City girls team for the 2016-17 season.
“To me, the most important thing is working with the student-athlete,” Marshall said. “My desire was strong enough that I wanted it to work out, and Megan gave me the opportunity. It was right place, right time.”
With a coach in place, the duo marched the Upper Burrell campus looking for players to fill a roster.
Marshall and Bratkovich managed to rally seven players. Six of them came from the PSNK softball team, and the other was a standout in high school and had not played a real game in more than three years.
Seniors Becca Wilhelm (Burrell), Brittney Wolford (Burrell), Erika Finn (Burrell), Alyssa Slancauskas (Cheswick Christian), sophomore Calle Zmenkowski (Fox Chapel) and freshmen Adda McCormick (Freeport) and Hannah Berry (Leechburg) committed to an eight-game schedule and bringing back PSNK women’s basketball.
Finn, a 2015 grad, played during the Bucs’ heydays of a few years ago. She was a junior on the 2014 team that reached the WPIAL Class AA girls championship game and had plenty of basketball experience.
“I was super excited for it,” Finn said. “I was like, ‘Sign me up, I’ll be the first person to commit to that.’ ”
It became obvious to Marshall that Finn was quite a talent.
“There’s no question in my mind that (Finn) could transfer and play at the D-II level,” Marshall said. “I asked her how she got out of high school without a scholarship.”
Finn pursued track at Slippery Rock before transferring to PSNK. She finished the regular season ranked third in the PSUAC in rebounds per game (10.5) and is the Lions’ top scorer.
“We’ve been beaten pretty soundly in the games that we’ve played,” Marshall said. “This is a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.