by Joel Nelson
The Penn State Altoona Lady Lions are set to begin their 20th season as an NCAA Division III program, coming off a 6-16 overall record last year that included six wins and 12 losses in Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference play. This year's edition of the women's basketball team feels that it possesses the right elements for its first winning season since 2009-10 and its first AMCC Tournament berth since 2014-15.
Fifth-year head coach Casey Shoup looks to improve the team's defense after Penn State Altoona allowed an AMCC-high 78.7 points per game last season.
"We certainly allowed our opponents too many points last year. Defense has been a very large focus of ours during the preseason. If we want to win games, we must be able to stop and/or limit our opponents' scoring opportunities," Shoup said. "With that being said, the ladies have been working hard on sharpening their defensive skills for the upcoming season. They've worked on getting quicker and stronger, along with better communication, which I feel will prove to be beneficial."
Shoup has high praise for her backcourt, which she believes can be key to improving her team's defense. She highlights junior guard Alexis Stitt (Hollidaysburg, PA/Hollidaysburg) and sophomore guards Finnley Christine (Tyrone, PA/Tyrone) and Kassidy Sorichetti (Halifax, PA/Halifax) as being difference-makers in that group.
"We have a few players, Kassidy, Finnley, and Alexis to name a few, that not only have quick feet, but their hand speed is impressive," Shoup explained. "They've proven to be sparks for us on the defensive end thus far."
Last season, the Lady Lions struggled in quarters one, two, and three, but played more evenly with their opponents in the fourth quarter. Shoup wants her team to be patient in order to achieve more consistency, particularly on the offensive end.
"To find success offensively, we need to take one moment at a time, remain level-headed, and stay confident when our plan of action gets shaken up a bit," she said. "Our ability to handle adversity while staying mentally sound is key for our program to find success. We have great offensive players who I know can put the ball through the net, but it's a matter of utilizing five players on the floor consistently and staying true to our game."
The team returns its top two shooters from a year ago in senior forwards Shannon Zimmerman (Pine Grove, PA/Pine Grove) and Megan Wheeler (Lilly, PA/Penn Cambria). Zimmerman shot 44.9 percent from the floor while averaging 12.0 points per game, and Wheeler shot 42.3 percent and put up 12.6 points per game. That experienced duo has provided the paint presence that Penn State Altoona needs, especially considering the loss of three-point shooting threat Brittany Boslet, who graduated after her four-year career came to an end in 2016-17. With Zimmerman and Wheeler – along with sophomore guards Kaley Strittmatter (Williamsburg, PA/Penn Cambria) and Paige Burk (Claysburg, PA/Claysburg-Kimmel) – shooting above 73 percent from the free throw stripe last season, getting the ball inside more frequently this year could be key for the Lady Lions.
Wheeler can also make an impact on the Penn State Altoona women's basketball record book this season. The senior is currently fourth on the all-time rebounding list (444) and can reach third place with 156 this year, which would also put her at 600 career boards. She will move into fourth on the all-time defensive rebounding list by grabbing 19, and she can move to third place on the all-time offensive rebounds list with 45 in the 2017-18 season. Wheeler can also become the all-time leader in blocks if she records 37 this year.
Shoup and her assistants, John Nardozza, Janelle Nardozza, Lindsey Port, Dustin Martin, and recent Lady Lions basketball alum Boslet, welcome incoming freshman guard/forwards Alexis Cannistraci (Tyrone, PA/Tyrone) and Brianna Polites (Elizabethtown, PA/Elizabethtown). The team has also added junior transfer Ijonana Laster (Niagara Falls, NY/Niagara Falls), who comes to Penn State Altoona after a two-year playing career at Penn State Hazelton. In her sophomore season at Hazelton, she averaged 12.1 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, and 2.3 assists per game while appearing in all 27 contests.
"Each of them bring a very sound game with them. The three of them have been impressive from the start, and we can't wait to watch them find success along the way," Shoup said. "Ijonana is so athletic, she sees the floor well, and her ability to attack the rim without fear or hesitation is something we've been longing for. Alexis has the ability to cause havoc due to the fact that she can take you down low and also knock shots down from the outside. Brianna's game is very well-rounded. She's that individual who does a little bit of everything, and that turns into big gains for us as a team."
The Lady Lions open the season at non-conference Division II opponent Lock Haven University on Wednesday, November 15 at 7:00 p.m. They will hit the road again on Friday, November 17 for the two-day Eastern Mennonite University Tip-Off Invitational, where they take on Salem College that night at 5:00 p.m., then face host school Eastern Mennonite on Saturday, November 18 at 3:00 p.m.
Penn State Altoona will have an 11-day break before beginning AMCC play at Pitt-Greensburg on Wednesday, November 29 at 8:00 p.m. Then, the Lady Lions travel north to Hamburg, N.Y. to play AMCC opponent Hilbert College on Saturday, December 2 at 3:00 p.m. After those games will be Penn State Altoona's home opener – which begins a four-game home stand – on Wednesday, December 6 at 8:00 p.m. against AMCC opponent Franciscan University. The other three games during that four-game stretch are against AMCC opponent Medaille College on Saturday, December 9, non-conference opponent Shenandoah University on Saturday, December 16, and conference foe Pitt-Bradford to open 2018 on Wednesday, January 3. The team's Pink Zone breast cancer awareness game is Saturday, February 10 at 4:00 p.m. against AMCC opponent La Roche College, and Penn State Altoona's Senior Day is Saturday, February 17 at 3:00 p.m. against conference rival Penn State Behrend.
It is a brand new season, and Shoup could not be any more excited.
"Overall, I'm ecstatic to watch these ladies on the floor," she said. "I am hopeful that Megan and Shannon will finish out their senior years on high notes with individual and team successes."
Women's Basketball 2017-18 Season Preview
by Joel Nelson