There are a lot of little ways to measure athletic success: wins and losses, individual accolades, the number of fans in the stands.
But nothing – nothing – trumps championships.
And Penn State Beaver has an awful lot of championships. In just the past 10 years, the campus has collected 19 Penn State Athletic Conference titles in seven different sports. And women’s basketball won the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Championship in 2015.
It’s a lot of success, and it’s created a bit of a problem, albeit a happy one.
“We’ve run out of room in the trophy case,” said Director of Student Affairs Chris Rizzo, who oversees athletics.
Actually, they’ve run out of room in two trophy cases. The case nearest the Gary B. Keefer Wellness Center houses hardware from decades past when the campus competed in the National Junior College Athletic Association, and baseball and golf regularly collected regional and national accolades.
The case nearest the gymnasium entrance is stocked with the iconic PSUAC lion trophies, marking the 19 times Beaver has reigned supreme in this decade.
The success, as success will do, has created a buzz. On campus, students – both athletes and non-athletes – have reveled in each victory, packing the gym and taking to social media to share the glory. Off campus, coaches are finding it easier to recruit, even from across the country.
And, in the conference, other teams have started a facetious rumor that Penn State Beaver Athletics is flush.
“The rest of the conference thinks we have a lot of money,” said Athletic Director Andy Kirschner with a grin. “We’re just doing a lot with a little.”
And it’s working.
On Feb. 23, with less than a minute left in the PSUAC Championship game, senior guard Khalia Adams drove the length of the floor, made a jump shot, drew a foul and sank the resulting shot to give Beaver a single-point lead over Penn State Hazelton.
The victory, secured when time ran out, marked the fourth consecutive PSUAC title for women’s basketball.
Within the week, Adams and fellow senior guard Morgan Kurtz were named PSUAC First Team All-Conference and USCAA First Team All-American. Sophomore forward Brittany Jackson and junior forward Asia Borders were named Honorable Mention All-Conference. And Coach Tim Moore was named USCAA Division II Coach of the Year.
You could call the season the result of good players, good coaching, good recruiting or good team chemistry. But Moore will tell you that, more than anything, it’s the result of a good culture.
At Beaver, say the coaches, they are given the freedom to run their programs without micromanaging from Kirschner or other higher ups, and the rivalry between programs in basically non-existent. In fact, coaches and athletes from other teams are often in the stands at other sporting events, cheering on their fellow Lions.
“At a lot of schools you see athletic departments where coaches compete and worry about what others are getting. Here the coaching staff does a good job of working with each other and sharing ideas,” Kirschner said. “When basketball looks good, we all look good. When soccer looks bad, we all look bad.”
It’s motivation for coaches and athletes who are already, by nature, fierce competitors.
“You don’t want to be the program that isn’t doing well,” Moore said.
Lately, no one has had to worry much about that. Besides the 19 conference championships, the campus boasts 80 USCAA All-American and 187 PSUAC All-Conference players in the last 10 years. And the campus’ only club sport, inline hockey, won the Western Pennsylvania Collegiate Roller Hockey League championship in 2015.
Plus, the allure of small-school athletics is beginning to spread.
“The conference is starting to grow,” Assistant Athletic Director BJ Bertges said. “Schools are putting more effort into athletics and the importance of athletics with recruitment and retention.”
There are still challenges, of course.
Because Beaver offers the first two years of nearly all of Penn State’s degrees, many students start their college careers on campus but finish them at University Park. For coaches, that means just two years to develop a player before he or she is gone. An increasing number of four-year degree programs – Beaver now has six and will likely have more in the coming years – has helped slow the drain but hasn’t stopped it.
Aging facilities also pose a problem. Business and Finance Director Adam Rathbun is hoping to soon update the baseball and softball fields, which he suspects haven’t had more than a facelift since being constructed.
“There are plenty of holes to fill,” Kirschner said, “but they were a lot more plentiful 13 years ago.”
When she graduated from Burgettstown High School in Washington County, Rachael Charlier had planned to play NCAA Division II softball at Shepherd University in West Virginia.
But plans change. And, prodded by her mom, dad, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – all Penn State alums – Charlier agreed to play USCAA Softball at Penn State Beaver.
At most USCAA DII schools, the difference is plain: Fewer students. No athletic scholarship money. Older facilities. Assistant coaches paid in gear.
But the benefits are apparent, too. Athletes travel less, miss fewer classes and have more time for studying. In the past decade, Beaver has had 343 PSUAC Academic All-Conference and 11 USCAA Academic All-Americans.
Those numbers are a deal closer for Moore when he’s recruiting.
“At this level, I’m not selling the WNBA,” he said. “I’m selling the Penn State education.”
And the athletes understand the difference.
“I don’t think I would have made it all four years at an NCAA school,” Charlier said. “I think I would have quit, and I know I wouldn’t have been successful academically. Here, they give you time to be a student first.”
Chris Weathers, a former Beaver basketball player, agrees.
“I know that here I found something special and was able to walk away with a Penn State degree that no one could ever take from me,” he said.
But, make no mistake, Beaver athletes enjoy a little celebrity, too.
About one in every six students is an athlete. That’s a large chunk of the 700 students enrolled, so they tend to be well represented and well known. And it doesn’t hurt that the athletics department likes to promote its athletes on campus and on social media.
For the past several years, Beaver admissions counselor and photographer Justin Vorbach has produced flashy, professional posters and videos that, if you ask Bertges, are on par with the top NCAA Division 1 campaigns.
The attention offers athletes some recognition for their work. After all, they not only carry a full load of classes and play a full season of sports, but many of them also work in the off-season to cover housing, books and spending money.
“It gives them something beyond a championship and trophy to work toward,” Bertges said. “You don’t have to be a conference champion to be a big deal. We’re able to give them an experience.”
For all the ways Beaver athletics has changed the lives of its athletes, athletes have also changed the culture of their campus.
Because nearly 80 percent of Beaver’s student population commutes, the campus demographics have traditionally mirrored Beaver County’s demographics; that is white, lower-to-middle income, native Pennsylvanians.
Today, thanks in large measure to minority, out-of-state athletes, campus diversity far outpaces local diversity in a university system where diversity is a growing measure of quality.
“It benefits the campus; not just athletics. It really builds the campus community,” Bertges said.
And it also helps enrollment.
Director of Enrollment Dan Pinchot often points to athletic success and Athletic Recruitment Coordinator Ryan Hudacsek as big boons to admissions. About 15 percent of Beaver students are now athletes.
Before Hudacsek, Beaver head coaches – most of whom have full-time day jobs – were solely responsible for recruitment. Now they are able to rely on Hudacsek to step in once an athlete is interested, or to suggest athletes they would have otherwise not considered, particularly those from out of the area.
And they are starting to see some returns. Just this year, Bertges’ volleyball team boasted six out-of-state athletes.
Out-of-staters are doubly important to campus because many of them live in Harmony Hall. That means they are among the 150 or so students on campus 24/7.
“It helps shape campus culture and life,” Bertges said. “Almost nothing goes on without athletics on campus.”
Living and working together, and shaping the atmosphere of the place they call home for two to four years makes for a close-knit group of athletes.
“It’s a family feel,” Charlier said. “I go up to UP on the weekends and I know there is no way I would have made the bonds there that I’ve made here.”
For Weathers, it was life altering.
“I made a home here,” he said, “grew as a man, filled roles, volunteered, studied, trained, learned, explored, partied and was tested in so many unbelievably life changing ways.”
Penn State Beaver has won 19 Penn State University Athletic Conference Championships in the past decade. Here they are, listed by year:
2008 Women’s Basketball
2009 Men’s Basketball
2009 Women’s Basketball
2010 Men’s Basketball
2010 Women’s Basketball
2011 Men’s Basketball
2013 Women’s Basketball
2014 Women’s Basketball
2015 Women’s Basketball
2015 Men’s Soccer
2015 Women’s Soccer
2016 Women’s Basketball