Giger: Saint Francis athletics enjoying wide success

LORETTO — Rob Krimmel arrived at Saint Francis as a basketball player in 1996 and has never left, so as a Red Flash lifer, he’s seen his share of struggles within the athletic department.

Men’s basketball, in particular, went through some very lean years, and when the signature program at a school is struggling, it can set a dreary tone across campus.

But times have changed at Saint Francis. And they’ve changed in a major way, across the board.

“It’s a classic example of success breeds success,” Krimmel said.

This is a momentous time for Saint Francis athletics. All things considered — and that’s the entire department rather than just one or two teams — it’s arguably the most successful period of athletic achievement ever at the tiny school on the mountain.

That may sound like an exaggeration for a school that produced basketball Hall of Famer Maurice Stokes and several other NBA stars, plus has sent its women’s team to the NCAA Tournament a dozen times since 1996.

But considering all-around achievement, not just basketball, the Red Flash are experiencing an unprecedented breakthrough.

“This didn’t just happen overnight,” SFU athletic director Susan Robinson Fruchtl said. “This really started years ago with the small improvements.

“It’s something we’re all very proud of — and want to continue.”

Saint Francis held its basketball media day Thursday, and there are big expectations this season. For the second straight year, the men were picked as preseason favorites to win the Northeast Conference, while the women, who made the NCAA Tournament last season, were picked to finish second.

Before the basketball proceedings began, however, the assembled crowd was reminded of one recent achievement. Pat Farabaugh, play-by-play man for men’s basketball and a university professor, boasted of how Saint Francis won the NEC Commissioners Cup last year for the first time ever.

That achievement recognizes the most successful athletic department in the conference based on results in all sports, and for a Division I school with an undergrad enrollment of just 1,666 to win it is, well, astounding.

Conference championships in women’s basketball, softball, women’s soccer and bowling paved the way to the Commissioners Cup.

“It is remarkable,” Farabaugh, a former sports information director at SFU, said. “It’s sort of hard to imagine when I got here in 1999 that we could have the kind of athletic program we have. It’s really a testament to the administration understanding that if they made some resources available, good things can happen.”

The key word there is resources. The university has put a lot of money into athletics over the past decade, improving facilities and focusing heavily on strength and conditioning upgrades.

Men’s basketball has been a big beneficiary of the latter. There once was a time when a freshman would come to play at Saint Francis, and by the time he left as a senior, his body really hadn’t changed all that much. Now, the freshmen look like kids and the seniors like grown men after putting on weight and muscle during their careers.

Women’s basketball head coach Joe Haigh told a story of how when he first arrived as an assistant 10 years ago, the school had words such as pride and tradition painted on the walls. When other teams arrived to play Saint Francis, they would mock those words because the school hadn’t enjoyed much success overall.

“I think there was kind of an attitude of failure for lack of a better word,” Haigh said of SFU athletes back then. “Now, people come here expecting to be great.”

The football program has made as big of strides as any at the school, taking advantage of a renovated stadium and strong recruiting. Once a laughing stock, the Red Flash now field a very competitive team under ninth-year coach and former NFL player Chris Villarrial, who took the program to the FCS playoffs in 2016.

Robinson Fruchtl said a couple of things happened that helped the athletic department take big steps forward.

First was an increase in scholarships for a lot of teams, including football, soccer, softball and volleyball.

Saint Francis wisely understood that, as a small school, it needed to provide as many athletic opportunities as possible simply to help get kids on campus. More kids on campus equals more business for the university.

The second big change came with hiring full-time assistant coaches for many of the teams.

“When I coached here (2007-12), basketball had full-time assistants, a lot of the sports didn’t,” Robinson Fruchtl said. “They had a lot of GA’s. That was a change that happened over several years, and that helped recruiting, it helped everything.”

With added resources, and eventually on-field success, came a change in expectations across the campus.

“When I came, there was always expectations for women’s basketball because there were a lot of championships before,” Robinson Fruchtl said. “So we sold that. We sold the tradition and said we can win championships here.

“Then when other programs started winning, that fueled the coaches who hadn’t won, and it started fueling the student-athletes to say, hey, if they can do it, we can do it, too.”

Krimmel, entering his seventh season as men’s basketball head coach, has done a fantastic job turning the Red Flash into a perennial contender in the NEC. The team went 5-24 his first season, but last year it went 18-13 and tied for second in the league.

The SFU men still have made only one NCAA Tournament, in 1991, but Krimmel has accomplished everything except that while turning the program into a force in the NEC.

The Red Flash return two first-team all-conference players in guard Jamal King and forward Keith Braxton, plus their roster returns more statistical production than any other team in all of Division this season.

“We’ve embraced the expectations,” Krimmel said.

Now the only thing left to do is live up to those expectations this season, and that’s never easy.

“The bull’s-eye on the back of being picked No. 1, it’s a lot better than being picked last,” Krimmel said.

The SFU women won the NEC and played UConn in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Red Flash return all-world guard Jess Kovatch, the leading returning scorer in the country with 2,158 points. She’s on pace to set the NEC career scoring record, currently held by former Saint Francis star Jess Zinobile (2,338), and she has an outside shot of reaching 3,000 points in her amazing career.

“If someone said that three or four years ago, I probably wouldn’t believe it,” Kovatch, who received no other Division I scholarship offers, said of her success.

The Red Flash also will have the leading high school scorer in Blair County history, guard Karson Swogger of Bellwood-Antis, in the starting lineup this season. She loves the challenge that comes with high expectations,

“In high school, we always had a target on our back, so I kind of had this expectation of winning throughout my whole life,” Swogger said. “It’s great to be part of that here, and I know that we can win an NEC title like we did last year. That’s going to be the goal every year.”

That’s always been the goal for women’s basketball at SFU. Now it’s the realistic goal of just about every team on campus, which in itself is pretty remarkable for such a small school.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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