From opening night through the first week of Christmas break, it looked like the men’s basketball season would fall in the line of disappointments that has been a common theme for most Waynesburg University sports in recent years.
After an ugly non-conference loss at Malone in which the Jackets failed to break 40 points, Waynesburg was 0-11, and not only were the Jackets losing, they were rarely competitive. All 11 losses were by no fewer than 11 points, so Waynesburg’s ugly record wasn’t misleading. To make matters worse, the Jackets were, and still are, playing without arguably their best player in Matt Popeck.
But ever since a 10-day break that allowed players and coaches to celebrate the holiday and recharge for the rest of the season, the team appears to be reborn.
It started in Waynesburg’s last non-conference game of the season against a pretty good Penn State-Behrend squad. The Jackets fell five points short, but for the first time all year, had a chance to win in the final minute.
Next up was a return to Presidents’ Athletic Conference play at Geneva. The first half seemed to follow the same script of the Jackets’ first three conference games, and the Golden Tornadoes went into the break with a 14-point lead. In the second half, however, Waynesburg flipped the script, and pulled out a win in Beaver Falls, something no Jackets team had done in almost six years.
The following game against I-79 foe Washington & Jefferson told a similar tale. Waynesburg turned another 14-point halftime deficit into a 15-point win, beating W&J for the third straight time.
So these three games showed, if nothing else, that the Jackets still had a pulse, but surely, a trip to Latrobe would provide Waynesburg with a reality check.
Since the 2011-2012 season, St. Vincent had lost just 15 times in 115 tries on its home floor, and only one of those losses had been to Waynesburg.
For the first 30 minutes, the underdogs controlled the game. After the Jackets let a 17-point second half lead slip away, however, it looked like just another night in Latrobe for the visitors, and a potentially demoralizing loss.
But somehow, with just seven players active, Waynesburg forced overtime, and then, won in overtime, beating the team that most expected to win the conference before the season [and still might win it.]
If the Geneva and W&J games didn’t prove much, the St. Vincent win certainly did. In beating the Bearcats, the Jackets proved that they can get in the ring with any team in the PAC, and in doing so, have turned non-believers into believers.
Entering Christmas break, I didn’t think this season would amount to much for Waynesburg, as the first 11 games didn’t indicate that. Obviously, however, something is different. Whether it’s the team adjusting to first-year coach Tim Fusina’s system, the continued progression of newcomers Ryan Felberg and Briston Bennett, or the 10-day break being all the Jackets needed to refuel, there’s something in the air, and as a result, a lost season might turn into a special one.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, and we have no idea if Waynesburg will continue to ride this wave or fall back to the skids over the final 10 games regular season games. For now, however, it’s an exciting time for the basketball program, and starting today at 3:30 against Thiel, it could get even better.