Young Pioneers look to make splash at national basketball tournament

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A year ago, after his Point Park women's basketball team lost by 30 points to Indiana Wesleyan in the NAIA Division II tournament, coach Tony Grenek was not overly disappointed.

Yes, it was upsetting to see a season come to an end, but as Indiana Wesleyan continued to blow out opponents on its way to a national championship, Grenek found a silver lining.

"I thought it was a great experience for us because it taught me, personally, the type of players I need to bring in to the program if we're going to compete for a national championship," Grenek said.

A year later, the Pioneers might not yet be at that level, but it looks as if they could be taking steps toward that goal.

Even with a youth-laden team, Point Park will make its third consecutive NAIA tournament appearance under Grenek. The tournament starts today in Sioux City, Iowa.

The Pioneers (29-4) open at 8 p.m. today against Morningside.

Point Park has won four more games this season than it did a year ago, a fact that might be surprising because three starters are either freshmen or sophomores. But what they lack in experience, they make up for with talent.

Freshman center Samantha Weir, a Riverside High School graduate, is leading the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging nearly a double-double with 14.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Two other local players -- freshman forward Carly Forse (Bishop Canevin) and sophomore guard Alexa Xenakis (Keystone Oaks) -- have proven to be valuable contributors early in their careers.

Xenakis is averaging 10.2 points per game and has made 51 3-pointers this season; Forse is posting averages of 10.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.

Some of the younger players are accustomed to big tournament moments from successful high school careers, but Grenek said he really isn't "sure what to expect yet because we are so young,"

Adding to the uncertainty is the quality of Morningside. This Sioux City college is the fifth-ranked team in NAIA, one characterized by its athleticism and fast-paced, pressing style of play.

The fact that the Pioneers, the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion, have to play such a talented team in the first round has been a point of contention, especially since the game will be played minutes from Morningside's campus.

The Pioneers believe they were underseeded.

"I thought we got a raw deal on the seeding," Grenek said. "But by the same token, when you're at a national tournament, everybody's good, so I guess it doesn't really matter when you play the elite teams. That's kind of the way we're looking at it right now."

With a talented core of young players, Grenek believes this will be far from his team's final chance at capturing a major prize. It might not happen this year, but Point Park's coach is confident in his program's trajectory.

"I really, really think we're going to be a team to be reckoned with to compete for a national championship within the next couple of years," he said.

"I'm not saying that we're going to compete this year, but I think the sky's the limit for the future of our program."

Craig Meyer:

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