Chris Fite (above) turned Shippensburg from afterthought to powerhouse in the span of four years. (Photo courtesy Shippensburg Athletics)
Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 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.)
When Chris Fite took over the Shippensburg program in June 2013, his goal was to improve the team year-by-year.
He's done just that.
Three years after winning three games in his first season as head coach in 2013-14, Fite led Shippensburg to a 27-4 campaign in 2016-17. The Raiders set a program record for wins, won their second ever PSAC championship and played in their first ever NCAA Tournament game.
Shippensburg defeated Virginia Union 79-59 in the opening round of the tournament before falling to Wheeling Jesuit, 97-91, to end their season in the second round.
Abe Massaley (Imhotep Charter) is the only key departure from last year’s team. Massaley, who was Fite’s first recruit, was a starter since his freshman season and averaged 13.8 ppg and 5.2 apg as a senior.
Returning for the Raiders is senior forward Dustin Sleva, who became the school’s first NABC First-Team All-American last season. Sleva ranked fourth in the conference in scoring (21.7 ppg) and first in rebounding (11.0 rpg) last season. His younger brother Dom Sleva also joins the program as a freshman this season.
Senior guard Justin McCarthur (15.9 ppg), junior guard Antonio Kellem (12.5 ppg) and sophomore forward John Castello (10.2 ppg) also return to the starting lineup. Clay Conner, a senior guard who averaged more than 17 minutes per game off the bench last season, will replace Massaley at point guard.
The Raiders have enough talent returning to take a shot at consecutive titles and try to make a deeper NCAA Tournament run.
Here are the (copy-edited) highlights of our conversation with Fite:
City of Basketball Love: You went to Spain this summer. Did anybody really surprise you on that trip?
Chris Fite: Fortunately we only lost one key guy from last year. Abe Massaley was our only starter to graduate, so we have a lot of pieces returned. All of our returners played at a high level last year and they certainly did the same thing on this trip. The only newcomer that we had who was able to play on the trip was a point guard we got from Latrobe, Jake Biss, and he did a real nice job. All the returners lived up to our expectations, and we looked real good. We won all three games we played over there and I’m happy where we’re at right now.
CoBL: Last year was such a special year. You set all kinds of records. What was that like for you as a coach?
CF: When you come into a program like I did four years ago, you have an idea and a vision of kind of the direction you want to go and how you hope things might transpire and these guys have really blown me away in their commitment to the university and this program and how they’ve come in and worked. As a coach, when kids put their faith in you like that, and sign up to come play for you, and come and work their tails off it’s really rewarding to kind of be able to see them reap some of the benefits of what they’ve invested. I was happy that they were able to experience that success and I really think it was well deserved.
CoBL: Your defense and offense were both very highly ranked last year. What were the keys on the court to having that success?
CF: It all starts with our D. I feel as though our guys take great pride in preparing for other teams. They get locked into scouting reports. We really feel as though that’s one of our strengths, kind of taking teams out of what they like to do and making them go to their second or third option. It certainly shows in our field goal percentage defense. That’s one of the numbers we look at every day and one of the things we keep reminding guys about. ‘Hey we held this team under 40 percent.’ If you have the firepower that we do offensively, and you can kind of control teams defensively or keep them at a low percentage, you give yourself a good chance at winning games.
CoBL How do you play that good defense? Is that communication, experience, athleticism?
CF: It’s a little bit of all that. I think athleticism is the least of what we have going for us. We don’t have a lot of great athletes. We have kids that are experienced, that have real high basketball IQs and they’re tough-minded guys. They really lock in and are able to carry through scouting reports. We vary our schemes each night out depending on who we’re playing who their main players are. And our guys do a really good job of locking in and understanding what we need to do to give us the best chance to win.
CoBL: Is that something you really tried to hone in on when you’ve looked for players to bring into your program over the past four years?
CF: This is more just a general comment than a defensive-minded comment. We want guys who can defend, but we want more than anything, just guys who are gym rats, and that are real hard-nosed, tough competitors. I think if we get eight, nine, 10 of those guys on the roster and they have a high basketball IQ, and understand how to play and are willing to be unselfish, then we can compete with anybody we step on the court with.
CoBL: What was the NCAA Tournament like, getting that win?
CF: It was great. It was good experience for us to kind of be able to be in the discussion, be in the mix and compete on that national stage. I was really proud of the way the guys performed. That game we were firing on all cylinders. I think we had 18 threes, which was a record. Virginia Union threw every defense and variation and scheme at us that they could and our guys just took everything they threw at us and handled it. I thought we played really well in the second round too. Just some things didn’t go our way and we came up a little short, which first time in the tournament we’re happy with what we achieved, but we also know we could have had more out of it, and that’s certainly going to be a motivating factor for us this year.
CoBL: Is there a different kind of feeling this offseason after what you accomplished last year?
CF: Yes there is. There’s an air of expectation now. When you’ve experienced a lot of success, and we’ve got some pieces in place now, the bar’s been raised. The challenge for me and the guys is to continue the approach that’s got us to this point, which is to take it one game at a time and not losing our focus. Fortunately we have real strong leadership from within our group. I still coach and I’m going to motivate them to be on the right path, but I’m confident the leaders within our group are going to show up and have the right mindset.
Dustin Sleva (above) has been one of the PSAC's best players during his time at Shippensburg. (Photo credit: Shippensburg Athletics)
CoBL: Dustin Sleva had an incredible year last year. He averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebouns. How does he get even better?
CF: He just keeps working. I don’t know whether he’ll be better statistically, but I know he’s one of our guys we rely on. He’ll provide whatever we need to have another successful season. He’s one of those guys, every morning when I come into work, he’s in there working on his game. Every bit of success he’s had, he earned.
CoBL: His brother is with you guys too now, right?
CF: Yes. His brother Dom we brought in this recruiting class. He had a great high school career and had a bad injury his junior, so he didn’t play as much, but his senior year I believe he averaged around 24 points per game. He’s a different type of player than Dustin, but he’s got a tremendous amount of potential and we’re glad he’s with us.
CoBL: How do those two interact on and off the court?
CF: They’re very close, it’s a close-knit family, very much a basketball family. And I think they’re excited to be able to compete together and be on the same team. We feel fortunate to have them both.
CoBL: And Masaly was a guy who watched the program grow with you over the past four years. What will it be like without him?
CF: It will be a big void. Abe was a special player and could do some things a lot of players out there couldn’t. There were a lot of moments, especially late last year, when we needed big plays and big buckets and Abe came through, which is why he ended up being the MVP of our conference championship. He’ll be missed, but the rest of the guys we have back are a year older, a year wiser, hopefully they’ll be a little bit better. We’ve got Clay Conner who I feel will step in and not miss a beat. He’s a senior captain and will be the floor general and one of our leaders this year. We’ve got a couple other point guards who we have a lot of confidence in as well. We will miss Abe, but we’re hoping that we can kind of adjust and still find a way to succeed.
CoBL: Are there any keys for you maintaining that success? What will be the X-factor for you guys?
CF: Just staying focused. Having that chip on our shoulder, don’t lose perspective and don’t look too far down the road. If we just keep the same kind of work mentality that we’ve had over the last couple years and we keep taking pride in bringing it night in and night out, we’ll win our share of games.
CoBL: Maybe the win total isn’t the same, but is there a chance for you to be even better with the number of guys you have coming back?
CF: There’s always a chance. You never know until the lights come on and you get out there and start competing and getting the feel for the different combinations you have, but we have a lot of pieces coming back, and that’s your goal each year is to try and take it one step further than the year before. We’ve said that each year we’ve been here and we’ve managed to do it. There’s not a lot of room for taking a step further this coming season, but we’re certainly going to do our best to exceed what we did last year.