It's a long way from Abington to George Fox

More news about: Penn State-Abington
Jessica Schmidt has been through the worst of times at Penn State-Abington. Now would be the best of times. 
Penn State-Abington athletics photo

By Rob Knox

Jessica Schmidt had doubts if she would ever experience a senior season as a member of the Penn State-Abington women’s basketball team.

Things didn’t look promising. The scores were embarrassing. Player participation was so low at one point that PSU-Abington had to recruit softball athletes to fill out a starting five, let alone an entire roster. A losing culture on the hardwood in recent years was a way of life at Penn State-Abington.

That annoyed Schmidt.

“Every game was a struggle and they were used to losing,” Schmidt said of her first year as a member of the PSU-Abington program. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Last year wasn’t the best year. We had softball players on our team and at one point we had six girls on our team. I thought our program was going to fold.”

That didn’t happen thanks to a gritty and talented team that exudes Philadelphia toughness and heart. The program also survived thanks to the perfect hire of head coach Stephanie Carideo, who immediately instilled a winning mentality into her program. Even though the Nittany Lions won five games in Carideo’s first year, progress was evident as players on the team had a basketball foundation and they brought into her system.

Instead of folding, the Nittany Lions are flourishing.

Penn State-Abington (22-5 overall) will always remember its first NCAA experience no matter how it turns out because it was rewarded for winning its first North East Athletic Conference championship with a cross-country flight to meet undefeated George Fox (27-0) Friday night in Oregon. Also playing in the George Fox pod are Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (24-3) and Puget Sound (23-4). Friday’s winners will meet Saturday at a time to be determined.

Anybody with the slightest knowledge of the NCAA knows it’s stingy with flying Division III teams to postseason locations.

“My expectations for the season were we were going to win more games this year than we did last season,” Carideo said. “We didn’t set the bar for wins or anything like that. I knew it would come together eventually. I didn’t think that we would be going to Oregon to play in NCAA Tournament.

“It’s been overwhelmingly exciting because it’s a lot. I thought we would stay on the east coast and play somebody like Montclair, Scranton or FDU-Florham. This is a great experience for our program and my girls.”

Now, Schmidt’s senior year is lasting longer than anybody would have expected when practices started in October. In its third year as a NCAA Division III program, Penn State-Abington has soared to heights unimaginable when Schmidt transferred from West Chester.

“She’s been through the hardships of this program of winning nine and five games,” Carideo said of Schmidt. “She has never given up, which is a tribute to her character. She displays leadership all the time especially when it comes to workouts. She hasn’t allowed anybody to take a day off.”

The Nittany Lions file

Since becoming a member of the North Eastern Athletic Conference, Penn State-Abington hasn't had a lot of success. Until this year, that is, when the Nittany Lions had more wins than the previous four years combined.

2014-15 (22-5, 16-4 NEAC)
2013-14 (5-16, 3-12 NEAC)
2012-13 (9-16, 7-11 NEAC)
2011-12 (0-24, 0-18 NEAC)
2010-11 (7-18, 6-16 NEAC)
2009-10 (5-20, 0-1 NEAC)

Penn State-Abington has already set a program record for wins in a season with 22. PSU-Abington is second in Division III in scoring defense (46.6) and three-point field goal percentage (39.3). The Nittany Lions held opponents to 50 points or less 14 games during the regular season and twice during the NEAC Tournament.

Not bad for a program that went 0-24 three years ago and lost its first two games last year by a combined 100 points.

An elementary education major, Schmidt will be flying for the first time in her life, which will be a fun experience. However, her teammates are going to take precautions to make sure Schmidt displays perfect airport decorum while going through security checkpoints.

“My teammates have warned me about me flying,” Schmidt said. “They said they’re going to have to duct tape my mouth shut and put me in check in the airport. I am so excited to be with my teammates on my first flight. I couldn’t wish for anyone else to be on the flight than them. It will be a fun experience and one I’ll remember for a lifetime. I can’t want to get started.”

Getting started involved a geographical triple-check for the Nittany Lions, who were pleasantly pleased to be flying out for their first round NCAA Tournament game.

“We were told that George Fox was on the west coast,” Schmidt said. “We checked about five times just to make sure it was in Oregon. When we saw our name appear in the bracket, we started screaming. It was just an awesome experience. Everything hasn’t set in yet. It’s still unbelievable.”

With Carideo and assistant coach Carolyne Heston leading the way, the culture changed. Both coaches were successful student-athletes at Philadelphia University and Holy Family, a pair of Division II schools, respectively. Carideo learned under legendary coach Tom Shirley, who has more than 600 career wins. They brought a new perspective and attitude to the PSU-Abington program.

“We brought into her system,” Schmidt said.  “I know that we worked our butts off this year. We didn’t take any days off and we knew we were getting better as a program. Having a coach who believes in you, can take you far and give you that extra edge.  As a team, we’ve built a tight bond. She built a friendship and bond with me. Coach was serious about changing PSU-Abington basketball. At the start of the season, we didn’t think this would be possible and now it is.”

PSU-Abington knows it’s facing a formidable opponent and one that many believe can advance to the Final Four in Grand Rapids, Mich. However, with it being March, upsets happen -- like 16th-seeded Harvard beating top-seeded Stanford in 1997, an 11-loss St. Mary’s (Md.) squad knocking off Guilford on its home floor in 2008 or Penn State-Behrend men winning at Hope in last year’s tournament.

George Fox finished the regular season as Northwest Conference champions, and went on to win the NWC tournament. The Bruins are currently ranked No. 3 in the Top 25 poll. The Bruins will be making their 11th NCAA Tournament appearance in the school’s 15 seasons of NCAA eligibility.

“We have nothing to lose,” Schmidt said. “We know we may be underdogs, but we’re excited for the opportunity to compete against a good program. We’re so focused. We’re going to prepare as best as we can, play PSU-Abington basketball and see how it goes.”

Schmidt is one of three players averaging double figures for the Nittany Lions. She was also one of three players named to the All-NEAC postseason team.

Senior guard Stephanie Keyes was named first team All-NEAC. Keyes was fifth in the NEAC in points, averaging 17.6 points per game.  She also finished second in the conference from 3-point range with a 40.0 shooting percentage. Keyes has been known to light up the scoreboard. She has scored 20 or more points 10 times this season, including a season-high 32 points against Keuka.

Schmidt leaves Penn State-Abington, with numerous single season records and is third all-time in scoring, with more than 1,000 points. Schmidt is the Nittany Lions’ leading rebounder at 7.6 points per game. She also averages 10.8 points per outing.

The 2015 Nittany Lions, heading to Oregon this week for the biggest game in the history of the program.
Penn State-Abington athletics photo

Junior guard Janaiah Elum finished the season 11th overall in points per game, averaging 16.0 and fourth overall in 3-point percentage, shooting 38.2% behind the arc.

Keyes, Elum and Kyra Lunsford have accounted for 84 percent of the Nittany Lions’ 219 3-point field goals this season. Keyes is fourth nationally in 3-pointers made per game (3.19). PSU-Abington has made double-digit 3-pointers in a game nine times this season, including 13 in the NEAC title game against Morrisville State. Other key contributors for the Nittany Lions this season have been Breanna Lineman and Elizabeth Jones.

Schmidt, who also student teaches at Hancock Elementary School in Norristown, will have plenty of stories to share with her first graders whenever her career ends. Schmidt has had quite the journey. She may be flying 34,000 feet in the air, but she knows she’ll be able to reach out the window and touch Cloud 9 because her dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament is about to become a reality.

“I am distraught that I am a senior because this has been the most amazing experience in my life,” Schmidt said. “This is an amazing and a perfect way to end my senior year. I couldn’t imagine any other ending. I am proud of all the hard work that everybody put in to help us reach this point. I wish I was a freshman again and had three more years here.”