When you draw up how you want the winning senior class in program history to go out, this wasn’t exactly how Shippensburg University Men’s Basketball coach Chris Fite would have planned it -- missing out on one last chance for their ‘one shining moment.’
The NCAA canceled the 2019-20 winter sports championships March 12 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, just as the Raiders were to take on Fairmont State in the opening round Atlantic Region Championships, their first stop on what they had hoped would be a long run in the NCAA Division II Tournament.
“You feel it most for the seniors because this is their last opportunity to go out and compete and to finish off a tremendous career,” said the SU head coach. “That’s the beautiful thing about the NCAA Tournament, everybody that qualifies for it believes that they are going to make a run. But there are a handful of teams that realistically have a chance to go deep in the tournament and we felt that we were one of them. We showed this year that we were capable of beating anybody if we played our best basketball.”
The Raiders had just completed a 24-win season where they won the PSAC East Division title and reached the final of the PSAC Tournament. Included in that record is a pair of top-10 regular season wins, having defeated then No. 3 IUP at home Dec. 21, 69-66, and then No. 8 West Chester on the road Jan. 8, 79-70.
The team was in their hotel lobby about to head to their last practice at IUP’s Kovalchick Athletic Complex the evening before the game against Fairmont State when they first received word that the tournament was canceled and their season was over.
“I got the call from Jeff Michaels, our Athletic Director, so as the guys kind of filtered their way down to meet in the lobby I broke the news to them,” Fite said. “There is no way to prepare for that or right way to break it to them, you just kind of had to be honest with them. You could see it in their faces that they were frustrated.
“In sports you’re used to having some sort of closure. You go out and compete and when you lose it’s awful and you’re devastated in the locker room and your season is over. But you deal with that, it’s part of the process. To have it hanging there in limbo and them saying that’s it, we are not going to play it, is tough. Obviously everyone is in the same boat and there are bigger issues out there outside of our little basketball world. But still, it is one of the things that we work for.”
Even though it is tough to think of what could have been, the Raiders cannot forget about what they accomplished. They made it to the PSAC Championship game for just the fourth time in school history, and it was the first time ever in the history of the program that they hosted the PSAC Championship game.
Shippensburg lost to IUP in the March 8 title game, 77-59
“To win the [PSAC East] was a tremendous achievement, that is our body of work over the course of a 22-game conference season,” Fite noted. “The playoffs are what they are. There is still something to be said for winning the conference championship and working your way through the playoffs, but I am very proud of the fact that we have that plaque that says were the PSAC East Division Champions and we were better through the course of an entire season than the rest of the guys [in our division].”
The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament also meant that the Raider careers of several key players were now over. The group of four seniors included John Castello, an All-PSAC First Team and All-District honoree who averaged 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds. Castello optimized leadership and effort for the Raiders, doing all of the dirty work as an undersized forward.
Lamar Talley, the 2019-20 PSAC East Defensive Player of the Year; Daylon Carter and Derek Ford round out a senior class that played a major role in helping the Raiders develop into a sustainable, top-flight Division II program.
“Each year we’ve really lost key players and each year guys step up and really seize the opportunity for us. We lost some great players last year and these guys all just really stepped up,” said the SU coach. “I felt like as a unit we really maxed it out as far as finding a way to manufacture wins. Even on nights where we weren’t playing well offensively, we would get it done on the defensive end or on the offensive boards, or different guys would step up different nights. It was great how we were piecing it together and had a belief that we were going to win.
“[The seniors] were huge parts of it. Those guys have been through a lot of big situations with this program and were a huge part of this year’s success, having that senior leadership and guys that have been through it and understood the ups and downs of a long competitive season. You can’t replace them. You just hope that as you move forward there are going to be guys that keep carrying that torch and picking up the slack.”
Among the top returning players is another All-District and All-PSAC First Team player in junior point guard Jake Biss, who led the Raiders this past season in both scoring (15.9 points) and assists (4.4).
Fite hopes the frustration those players felt when the NCAA Division II Tournament was canceled will help fuel them down the road.
“We saw what we had this year and what we were able to accomplish and I feel as though we have a tremendous amount of talent returning,” Fite stated. “I feel as though everyone should be really excited about the possibilities for next season and moving forward. Our goal every year is to try and take one step further and raise the bar, to continue to achieve something new.
“This group has not won a conference playoff championship. We need to get into the tournament and win some games, there is certainly a lot that should motivate these guys to want to make their mark.”