PG North: With few players available, Grove City women's team relies on Hampton grad

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Starters on the Grove City College women's basketball team do not run onto the court accompanied by their own special song as part of pregame introductions at home contests.

That's a pity.

It would be appropriate for Raeann Szelong to jog onto The Arena court with Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" blaring as her background music.

Szelong, a Hampton High School graduate, has been the Wolverines iron man this season. She has logged more minutes of playing time than any of her teammates and probably played as much as any player, male or female, in the country.

"I can play her 40 minutes a game," Grove City coach Sarah Harris said. "She can play forever."

There have been games this season when it probably seemed as if Szelong was doing just that ... playing forever.

Through a series of unrelated events, the Grove City women's team has had just seven players available for most games. There were a couple of time the Wolverines had just six healthy players.

What happened was that five players who were on the team last season decided not to play basketball this season. As Harris said, "That's not atypical at the [NCAA] Division III level."

Then, a couple of freshmen who Harris thought were going to play decided to concentrate on other things. That left Grove City with a roster of seven when the season began.

The Wolverines thought the number of reserves would grow from two to three when Mars High graduate Megan Gibson transferred in from Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland after the first semester. But just as she was preparing to make her debut, Jenna Johnston, a sophomore guard and Clarion-Limestone High graduate, went down with a knee injury that ended her season.

Grove City was back to seven healthy players.

Not that any of that would have affected Szelong. Having an extra substitute might have meant an extra minute or two of rest in games. The key word here is "might."

Szelong is the only senior on the Grove City roster and the Wolverines' point guard. She runs the offense, leads the defense and is the one player Harris needs/wants to have on the court every minute of every game.

"There have been so many situations where I'm about to call a play and she calls the same play on the court," Harris said. "She's really an extension of the coaching staff."

Going into last night's home game against Saint Vincent College, Szelong was averaging 6.7 points per game and leads the Wolverines in assists with 50. She also paced the team in minutes played with 838. That averages out to 36.4 minutes a game and at least twice this season she was on the court for all but 60 seconds in games.

It needs to be pointed out that she rarely takes a break. Grove City fans have to get tired just watching Szelong play.

If she isn't handling the basketball to set up the offense, she's moving without it in an effort to get open. On defense, she's always in an opponent's face.

"She has tremendous speed and she can take a player off the dribble," Harris said. "She is incredibly perceptive at figuring out situations and understands what's going on out there and what we have to do."

A biology major, Szelong has tried to be a good role model for her younger teammates. Her work ethic under the unusual circumstances has been remarkable. And remember, there are no athletic scholarships at the Division III level. Players are on the court because they love the game.

"There have been times when I've taken her out [of games] to give her a breather and she has just given me a look," Harris said. "She never complains, she just keeps working hard. I feel for her sometimes that we're in this situation in her senior year."

Grove City took a 10-13 record into last night's contest. The Wolverines are 6-7 in the Presidents' Athletic Conference and in fourth place. The PAC tournament begins next week.

A three-year letterman, Szelong started for Grove City the past two seasons. She was the MVP of the Allegheny College tipoff tournament last year.

At Hampton, she earned four letters in basketball and was a two-year captain. She considered attending other colleges but liked the atmosphere at Grove City.

"I wanted to play basketball and wanted to stay close to home," she said. "It's worked out well for me."

A defensive whiz, Szelong likes the challenge of shutting down an opponent.

"Playing defense is what I do best," she said. "Who I end up guarding depends on the type of offense the other team is running. The reason I like defense is that even when you aren't shooting well, you can make a contribution with your defense."

And with your attitude.


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