Freshman makes mark on program

Jennifer Papich has redefined the phrase “freshman 15.”

While other first-year students are packing on the pounds, the Pittsburgh native has dropped 15-plus points four times and recorded a double-double twice.

Gannonsports.com
(Gannonsports.com) Freshman forward Jennifer Papich

Papich, who leads the Gannon University women’s basketball team with 11.2 points per game, has served as a more-than-viable replacement for last year’s NCAA Final Four tandem of Brittany Tabron and Kim Vargas.

“She’s very talented,” said coach Cleve Wright. “She works hard at practice every day and every day she gets a little older.”         

Although Papich has banged more boards than Bruce Lee and blocked more shots than Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, the 6-foot forward wasn’t always sure that Gannon was the place she’d end up.

Throughout the decision deadlines and late college visits, it was Wright’s steadiness that appealed to Papich – a four-year starter who helped Fox Chapel high school win the WPIAL Section II AAAA Championship twice.

“I chose Gannon mostly because of coach Wright,” she said. “He was the best, most committed coach throughout the process and he makes sure that all the girls will mesh.”

After arriving as one of the newest Knights, Papich learned that playing a collegiate sport would become a 24/7 job.

“It’s been an adjustment,” she said. “The time commitment is a lot more. All the work in the preseason was a surprise. The practices are longer and harder but I love it.”

Even though Papich spent part of her first few months transitioning from high school to college, junior guard Caitlyn Lowe said her contributions have been obvious since day one.

“It’s been great playing with her,” Lowe said. “She’s full of energy and talent and brings so much to the table. It’s been fun watching her grow.”

Her growth hasn’t stopped as Papich, who leads the team in personal fouls and is second in turnovers, has tried to become more comfortable on the court.

“The game is a lot faster now,” she said. “In high school, you’d have that extra second but you just have to learn to slow the game down in your mind.”

Lowe said that as the game hasslowed down for Papich, her confidence and skill level have increased dramatically. 

Despite being ranked fourth in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference in field goal percentage and 13th in scoring, Papich insists that offense isn’t her main focus.

“I much rather would play defense than score,” she said. “That’s something we work really hard at and something I take pride in.”

In order to reach her goals on the defensive end, Papich said she realizes that she has to spend more time in the weight room bulking up.

“I need to get stronger,” she said. “Even playing in high school, I’d get pushed around a lot. I spent a lot of time in the summer strength training and learning how to play with my back to the basket.”

Her baptism into the PSAC fire has been made easier by learning from the seniors and veteran players.

“They taught me how to work hard every day,” she said. “For girls like Julie [Kleber] and Shanna [Thompson], this is their last year so you have to play like it’s your last game and learn how to play with that urgency.”

The teaching has gone both ways as Papich, whether cognizant of it or not, has helped the older players find ways to enjoy the season and each other.

“She’s a spark for us,” Lowe said. “She’s an easy person to get along with. She cares about us and brings us all together.”

ZACK MCDERMOTT

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