Basketball and wrestling home openers
First-year coaches Art McCray and
Joe Makara rebuild programs
Penn State New Kensington begins a new era in winter sports when men’s basketball and wrestling open their respective seasons with first-year coaches.
Basketball coach Art McCray starts his inaugural collegiate season at 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 21, with a non-conference game against the Community College of Allegheny County-Boyce in the Athletics Center. Wrestling coach Joe Makara makes his home debut at the PSNK Open at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 16, in the Athletics Center.
McCray, former Summit Academy coach, finds himself in an unfamiliar position -- coaching a team with returning players. McCray never coached a player for more than one season in his three years at Summit, a high school for court-adjudicated youth. Students are usually there for one year and return home because they fulfilled the requirements of their assigned program. At New Kensington, McCray inherits four starters, including sophomore forward Rashon Boone, who played for McCray two years ago at Summit.
“Now my staff and I come into a situation with student-athletes who have played together and have a decent basketball IQ.” said McCray, who remains a supervisor at Summit Academy.
With the addition of 10 newcomers, McCray is looking forward to working with a stable roster. He is tasked with re-establishing the winning tradition of the basketball program that has won 13 conference championships, more than any team in the Penn State University Athletic Conference. New Kensington’s last title was in 2003 under head coach Joe Milito.
“I am expecting a lot of good things from all of our returning players and newcomers as we develop team chemistry and change the basketball culture,” said McCray. “I expect for this team to compete on a higher level than in the past.”
McCray takes over a basketball program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007-08 when Ryan Shank’s team finished with a 22-6 record and ranked sixth nationally in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association. Last year’s team, inexperienced and dominated by freshmen, went 1-17 for the school’s fifth consecutive sub-.500 season.
The four returnees -- sophomore forward Shaquille Hager, junior guard Darryl Hamilton, junior guard Dom Strapac and Boone -- provide the foundation for rebuilding the team. Freshmen and transfer students will play a major role in McCray’s scheme.
One newcomer is actually a veteran who is the conduit from the past to the present. Senior guard Zach Ziemianski started on that last winning squad and led the team in assists. He returned to campus for the fall semester to pursue his bachelor’s degree. Ziemiansk transferred after his freshman year. Freshmen forwards Tim Jones, Matthew Sutton and Gian-Karlo Molina will vie for starting positions.
All of our guys are capable of being in the starting lineup on any given night depending on our game plan,” said McCray, who played basketball for two years at the New Kensington campus. “Having a bench full of various talents puts us in a position to execute various styles of play.”
Makara, former assistant wrestling coach at Burrell High School, faces the opposite challenge as McCray. At Burrell, he had a steady pipeline of wrestlers, a balance of rookies and veterans that filled all the weight classes. At New Kensington, he returns one wrestler, albeit a nationally-ranked one, and has several talented newcomers, but not enough for the 10 weight classes in college wrestling. Makara takes the inevitable losses due to forfeits and inexperience in stride as he prepares for the season and plots his recruiting plan and develops his team.
“I don't think the inexperience will hurt us that much, but the lack of numbers will lead to losses, despite the tough and talented wrestlers that we have.” said Makara, who was named coach in August. “I like the idea we'll be starting from the beginning. It's the right place for me.”
What Makara lacks in numbers will be offset by the skill level of the roster. Sophomore John Dopplehauer, the lone holdover, was ranked 18th in the 285-pound division at the 2013 National Collegiate Wrestling Association national championships in Allen, Texas. Dopplehauer, a Penn-Trafford High School graduate, finished in the top third, 24th overall, of the 80-man heavyweight class.
Newcomers expected to vie for national honors are Colin Austin (Penn-Trafford) and Phillip Marra (Burrell). The two freshmen will make their collegiate debuts on Nov. 9 at the Electric City Duals at Scranton University.
Wrestling’s home opener features five teams and more than 70 wrestlers. The Penn State campuses of Mont Alto, Greater Allegheny and Beaver, as well as Jamestown Community College and University of Pittsburgh Wrestling Club, fill the field.
For rosters and schedules, visit http://www.psnkathletics.com/sports/mbkb/index
(Jacob Baird, a senior communications major and intern in the Alumni and Public Relations office, conducted the interviews and contributed to the story.)