North Xtra: Fox Chapel grad Papich leads Gannon on and off the court

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Look inside the university library, at the table way in the back buried behind a stack of science books and you just might run into Jen Papich.

"I'm definitely the definition of a nerd," she said. "I love school, I love learning. I'm kind of a perfectionist so I don't like not doing well. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself in an academic sense. I do like school and I do like learning."

A junior at Gannon University, Papich carries a 3.96 grade point average -- "it could obviously be a little better," she said -- as a biomedical engineering student. She also is a 2011-12 Capital One Academic All-District II first-team selection, a PSAC Scholar-Athlete and received the Division II Athletics Directors Association Academic Achievement Award.

Oh yeah, and she plays basketball, too.

Papich is a 6-foot-1 forward who has helped the Lady Knights to the top of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference standings and a No. 10 national ranking in the USA Today Sports Division II Coaches' Poll. Gannon is 21-3 overall and 15-2 in the PSAC West after losing for the first time since Jan. 16 Saturday at California.

When Gannon coach Cleve Wright first recruited Papich as a senior at Fox Chapel, he knew exactly what he was getting.

"I saw a player who plays as hard as I've ever seen a player play," said Wright, in his 11th season at Gannon. "She gives it everything she has. I saw a player who was going to be an extremely hard matchup at our level, not only because of how hard she plays but because of her length. She's a good [6 feet 1]. She can fly down the floor, she is extremely fast. That makes it tough on our opponents."

But has she lived up to his expectations?

"Absolutely," he said. "When she came in, I expected her to be an impact player and she has been. She is definitely a very strong player for us. I'm very happy she came to Gannon."

Papich set the bar high last season as a sophomore when she scored a team-high 427 points, the 22nd-highest single-season total in school history, while averaging 14.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.5 assists per game. She also finished with 77 steals, the seventh-highest single-season total at Gannon.

And she wasn't afraid she might have set the bar a little too high for this season.

"I don't think so. I believe every team that comes in is a new team. As you get older, all these teams that have played against me four, five, six times already kind of know my strengths. But having the team that we do, I don't have that pressure on me because I don't necessarily have to score as much as I did last year because people like Brittany Batts are stepping in and scoring 25 points a game and hitting seven 3-pointers. It's been really nice because I know I don't have to step in and score as much in order to help everybody."

But she is still more than holding her own on the court.

Papich, a member of Post-Gazette Fabulous Five while at Fox Chapel, has started all 23 games this season and is averaging a team-high 12.7 points and a second-best 5.6 rebounds. She also leads the team in blocked shots with 21 and steals with 37.

"I'm a lot quicker than a lot of girls in my position. It definitely gives me an advantage when I'm going up against girls who are bigger than me. Girth-wise I'm a lot smaller than a lot of the girls I go up against. I can't muscle people around, I'm too small for that. But my quickness kind of balances me out with the girls who would push me around more. I can move quicker than they can."

In the 81-73 upset loss to California Saturday that snapped a six-game winning streak, Papich used her quickness to score 19 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the field, including her eighth 3-pointer of the season and contributed eight rebounds.

"Jen is somebody who is able to create her own shot," Wright said. "She's able to put a lot of pressure on the other team that you have to stop her. The other thing she does is she's a phenomenal defender. You put her on the best player and she does a great job. She's worked so hard in trying to give the offense a hard time."

The Lady Knights faced a hard time Wednesday night when they put their lofty ranking on the line by hosting two-time defending PSAC champion Edinboro. Gannon is in first place in the PSAC West but led Edinboro by only one game.

"We try not to look at the rankings," Papich said. "It's nice but it's also just somebody's opinion on how you've been playing or they look at numbers and compare you to other teams.

"We've really done a good job of just focusing on every practice, every game. We know we're ranked high, we know it kind of puts a target on our back, but it's not something we focus on."


Rick Davis: or 412-263-3789.


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