Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2021-22 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
As if not competing in basketball last year for the University of the Sciences wasn’t challenging enough, well this upcoming season is the last for the school, which was the country’s first college of pharmacy.
After four months of exploring a merger, in early June USciences and Saint Joseph’s University announced an agreement to integrate into one university, or more precisely, USciences will morph into St. Joe’s in 2022.
Jackie Hartzell (above) and USciences' women are at the end of a successful run. (Photo courtesy David Broytman/USciences Athletics)
The array of academic considerations aside, what this means for the Devils’ basketball program is simply, poof.
Like with a wave of a magic wand, the athletic teams at USciences will be gone.
And so for the women’s basketball team, which opens its final season with a practice on Friday, this reality is still understandably difficult to process.
“There were a lot of tears,” USciences coach Jackie Hartzell said. “The initial reaction was just total shock because I did not see this coming at all. I feel for the kids more than anything because some of them are going to have a one-year college basketball career.
“It's sad. It's a shame.”
Typically, the start of every season packs excitement and optimism, especially for the Devils, who have qualified for the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) Tournament the last seven seasons, including winning back-to-back CACC Tournaments in 2017 and 2018. But this is unlike any previous seasons.
“I think you have to approach it like any other season,” Hartzell said about entering her eighth season (not counting last year’s COVID cancelled campaign) as head coach. “It's not something that we really have talked about a whole lot with our players. I think everyone already knows it's the last year, so I don't think we have to constantly remind them of that.
“But I mean, I do think that players and coaches, we all have a pack mentality in terms of just appreciating every moment and especially not having a season last year and knowing that this will be the last year for probably 13 of our 15 players.”
Of course, the players with eligibility could transfer, but the entire roster are science majors who chose the school not just for basketball.
“Most of them are in doctorate programs, in majors, where they can't leave,” Hartzell explained “When you come to USciences, you're coming for academics first. These kids all have their priorities in order in that school comes first and basketball is secondary. So a lot of them, this will be the last year, the end of their career, where only two of them will be actually exhausting their final year of eligibility.”
Shannon May is a fifth-year senior who was originally going to be a graduate assistant coach this year but then decided to use her COVID year of eligibility.
“I definitely feel like it's everyone's last year,” May said. “Everyone's kind of come together because we all have one year left.”
May acknowledged that for the incoming freshman, it was “weird.”
“I know that some of them definitely will be looking to play, get some minutes and hopefully have other teams see them,” May said.
“Basketball in college has been the best, I've loved playing here and all the upperclassmen made it so enjoyable for me, so I definitely want to do that for them,” May continued about the freshmen, “especially because if they don't go anywhere, it is their only year playing basketball in college.
“I just think it's such a good experience. So I think it's important that they enjoy it.”
It’s a roster that draws heavily from the Philadelphia area, whether that’s May, an Archbishop Wood grad or fellow grad student Jess Huber (North Penn), seniors Kendall Keys (Lenape), Taylor Hamm (Perk Valley) and Julian Gura (St. Basil), and all the way down the roster, everyone from either the Philadelphia area or the Garden State.
Dayna Balasa, a freshman, committed at the end of her junior year at Upper Dublin High School. The physical therapy major was the first to commit in her class.
“I'm just trying to make the most of it and just have fun,” Balasa said about approaching possibly her one and only collegiate season.
When asked if she thought about going to another school?
“I considered it a little bit, but I'm in the physical therapy program, which is a big part of why I came here,” Balasa said. “I want to get the one year in and I'm not sure what I'm going to do next year. I'm going to see how the season goes, but I’m thinking about staying because of the physical therapy program.”
Balasa, who became the 12th player in Cardinals girls’ hoops history to top 1,000 points last March, graduated as the program’s all-time leader in assists and 3-pointers.
“Yeah. It's like, it's really sad, but I'm just looking forward to this year and I'm just going to play my hardest and hope we have a good season and end on a good note,” Balasa said.
Balasa, a 5-foot-8 guard from Dresher, is one of four freshmen.
“We get strength from each other because we are in this strange situation together,” she said.
“We're all really close and we talked about it a little bit, but we don't really know what we're going to do,” Balasa added on the future after this season of the four frosh before saying, “we're all really anxious to start.
“We've all been working really, really hard and we're going to continue to try to make it like the best season ever.”
Hartzell is caught in the middle of doing what is best for her players this season and for their future.
“It's just a very unique situation because as a coach, I want to help them find another school if they want to do that,” Hartzell said. “But at the same time, I want to focus on our season and making the best of our season.
“So, we're just, we're doing the best that we can.”
Shannon May (above) is one of two graduate students on the Devils' roster. (Photo courtesy David Broytman/USciences Athletics)
May, who is in a six-year program at USciences, considered not playing this strange season because of her academic load. The 5-4 guard from Rydal, Pa. is majoring in occupational therapy.
“I have rotations and hospitals this year, so I just didn't see how it was going to work,” said May, a three-time CACC All-Academic Team selection. “But, I was talking to the coaches in August and they were like, we can just try to make it work.”
Hartzell embraced welcoming May back for this challenging year for more than just her leadership and experience.
“She's a glue player, like she does all the little things to help you win that doesn't show up in the stat sheet,” Hartzell said. “She's just a winner. We're thrilled to have her back.”
May is concerned about Hartzell’s future.
“We’ve definitely been talking about how this year is everyone's last year, even if it's your first, and that's with the coaches too,” May said. They've obviously been very successful here. I just think it's really unfortunate that this happened to them and I don't personally know if they have any opportunities right now for next year.
“They're really great coaches and they care about all of us and they've been really helping all of us,” May added. “I'm sure they'll find another coaching job because they've just done such a great job here.’
Hartzell, a four-time CACC Coach of the Year, was the 2017 Philadelphia Coaches Conference Collegiate Coach of the Year, the 2018 Hero Sports Division II Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year and the 2019 Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) East Region Coach of the Year.
“I would like to continue coaching but I don't have any plans as of now,” the former Archbishop Ryan High School said. “I just want to focus on this season and make the most of this final season. And then when the season's over, if any opportunities pop up, I’ll go from there.
“But, I'm really not focusing on me at all. Right now, I just want to enjoy this year.
“I'm a big ‘everything happens for a reason’ person. So, you know, hopefully, it works out. But yeah, it's definitely a unique situation. Sometimes it's hard to look past this year because sometimes it's still hard to believe that this is our last year. So it's hard to really look past a year at all. So we'll see what happens after the season.
“We've been very fortunate,” Hartzell continued. “We've had at least ten former players stay on the coaching staff in some capacity over the last nine years, but the main assistant coach is Jim Ricci and he is a huge part of our success.
“He's got to look for another coaching job as well. So it's unfortunate for him as well. He's had opportunities in the past and he stayed and then he's out of a job. So yeah, it's tough for sure.”
These tough times, though, have been eased by the coaching community.
“I've gotten so many phone calls, text messages, emails from people in coaching, or in the women's basketball world and just people reaching out with their support,” Hartzell said. “Yeah, that's definitely makes you feel a little bit better about things.”
(Photo courtesy David Broytman/USciences Athletics)
The last home game on campus in the University City section will certainly be awkward.
“She brought it up to me once and she was not really sure how she was going to go about it because like they usually just do a senior night, but now it's like so many people's last games,” May said about a conversation with Hartzell. “So she definitely is going to do something. We haven't really figured out how (we will) go about it yet.”
“Yeah, it's something. I guess, we'll start to plan for the next couple of weeks or months,” Hartzell said about the odd farewell. “There's a lot going on because even though it's our last year. We're still doing a ton in terms of fundraising. We're going to Florida in November and we're going to Boston in December.
“There's coaching on the court and there's all the other stuff off the court, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Even though they won’t know what the final pre-game home ceremony will bring, May and her teammates do know how they want to exit.
“We’re looking to go out with the championship,” May said. “Yeah, definitely want to go out with a bang.”
And, even if this challenging season isn’t as successful as the players and coaches hope, you know the success will remain off the court. After all, USciences has been ranked in the top-10 of the NCAA Division II Academic Success Rate (ASR) for 13 years in a row, dating back to its first year on the report. The Devils have been ranked in the top-two of the CACC in each of those 13 years.
“It's a special type of person who goes to our school,” said Hartzell, who played at Delaware Valley College, where she earned Middle Atlantic Conference All-Academic Team honors three times. “So I think we've been very fortunate that we've been able to coach great kids. And that's been the primary reason for our success. They have a great work ethic whether it's in the classroom or on the court.
“They’re always doing what they can to make themselves better and they're really smart. So that definitely helps as well. That translates to on the court.
“That's definitely what I'll miss the most about coaching at USciences is the type of kids that we've been able to recruit and that we've been fortunate enough to coach.”
Under Hartzell, eight student-athletes have earned a total of 15 All-CACC honors along with two CACC Players of the Year and a Rookie of the Year.
The numbers on the court are just as impressive as USciences has qualified for four NCAA Tournaments in a row – just one of 20 NCAA Division II teams. The Devils are just one of 10 teams to win a game in each of the last three tourneys, including the only team in the East Region.
“Yeah, we definitely want to have as good of a year as we possibly can without putting any added pressure on ourselves,” Hartzell said. “That's the hard part is to just enjoy every moment and appreciate every moment. I know it's going to go by so fast.
“There's some days where I am and I'm like, well, I just can't believe this is happening.
“We have two fifth-year seniors and then we have three regular seniors, but then we have five juniors whose careers are going to be over.
“All of us have all put our hearts and souls into the program and made it what it is. And now we just have to walk away from it … “