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Junior Achievement

Sara Raschiatore, left, and Laura Hall

Sara Raschiatore, left, and Laura Hall

Had they not given in to second thoughts, Laura Hall and Sara Raschiatore wouldn’t have been second to none last fall in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. Fact is, they wouldn’t even have been in uniform.

This peerless pair of juniors, who accumulate honors the way Bill Gates’s bank account accumulates interest, changed the course of IUP sports history when they changed their minds.

Hall repeated as the PSAC West Player of the Year in volleyball, led the conference in hitting percentage and kills per game, and spearheaded IUP’s deepest advance ever into the NCAA Division II tournament. Raschiatore was named the PSAC Athlete of the Year in women’s cross country, won conference and regional championships, and finished a career-best fourth at the NCAA Division II meet, lifting IUP to fifteenth place.  

Yet, inconceivable though it seems today, there was a time when both Hall and Raschiatore questioned if collegiate athletics was for them.

“I wasn’t sure I really wanted to play volleyball,” says Hall, a four-time all-state selection at Shannock Valley High School. “I was kind of burned out at the end of my senior year and I was ready to do something different. Going to school would be enough of a challenge. I didn’t know if I’d be able to—or if I wanted to—put in the time to do volleyball, too.”

Raschiatore harbored similar doubts upon graduation from Kiski Area.

“After high school I didn’t want to run—I was just tired of it,” she says. “It was too stressful for me. But then I started to run on my own halfway through my first year in college [spent at IUP’s Kittanning branch campus]. I realized it was something that I needed in my life.”

By reconsidering, Raschiatore buoyed an already vigorous program and Hall rescued one that was foundering. A three-time first-team All-PSAC outside hitter, Hall breathed life into a patient that had long languished in the ICU. Before she spurned several Division I offers to cast her lot with the Indians, IUP had suffered through eight consecutive losing seasons. The Indians are 69-32 since Hall’s arrival and this season reached the NCAA’s Atlantic Region finals, uncharted territory for a once-moribund program.

“She’s made such a difference,” says Carmen Cortazzo, voted the PSAC West and Atlantic Region Coach of the Year after leading the Indians to a 25-12 record. “We had sort of bottomed out here. But when you have a player that caliber coming to a Division II school—especially a Division II school that didn’t have a history of winning—well, that gave us instant credibility. We got some recruits, some key transfers, people who decided to come here just because Laura did. Things sort of lined up for us and, wow—it’s been beyond our wildest dreams.”

Raschiatore can relate. In her wildest dreams she never envisioned challenging for national honors, not when her high school résumé was so ordinary. Raschiatore’s best finish at the state cross country meet was thirty-fourth.

“I never really trained hard in high school, like I do now,” she explains. “I’m much more serious about my training. I just think my whole attitude has changed. In high school, I was kind of negative about running. I’m a lot more positive now. I guess that year off helped me.”

Indeed, Raschiatore made an immediate impact after arriving at the main campus. She placed seventeenth in her first NCAA meet and improved to fourth in last fall’s race, held on Slippery Rock’s undulating course. Only one runner in IUP history—Eliza Benzoni, who finished third in 1989—placed higher at a national meet.

“This course was good in that Sara’s not afraid of hills. But then, Sara’s not afraid of anything,” says Ed Fry, the PSAC Coach of the Year. “She’s just tenacious. Really, nothing she does surprises me. We were hoping for a top ten and really hoping for a top five, so we made it. She beat some outstanding runners.”

Hannah Lawrence of Western State (Colo.) won the race in 21:24.7, just ahead of Marjo Venalainen, the defending champion from Kennesaw State (Ga.). Raschiatore ran the 6,000-meter course in 21:41.9, knocking an astounding forty-eight seconds off the time she’d clocked two weeks before on the same layout to win the East Region meet.

Reaching such lofty heights was possible only because she dedicated herself to running after joining the program. Raschiatore, who is also a two-time All-American in track, puts in more mileage some days than she did in a week at Kiski. What’s more, she doesn’t slack off when the season ends.

“There probably aren’t too many people who work as hard as she does in the offseason—that’s the big thing,” says Fry. “That alone will make you physically and mentally tough. A lot of people don’t get that. You’ve really got to do it in the off-season to have success during the season.”

Hall has likewise profited from an investment in hard work. She’s as industrious as a honeybee, always looking for ways to refine her considerable skills.

“Her work ethic is incredible,” says Cortazzo, a 1970 IUP grad and a former football assistant (1981-82) at his alma mater. “I’ve coached some darn good football players, but I’ve never seen an athlete work as hard as Laura, every minute of every practice. She just works constantly at improving her game.”

The dividends are apparent on the stat sheet. Hall led the conference and finished eighth nationally in kills per game (5.32), also paced the PSAC in hitting percentage (.386), and ranked fifth in service aces (0.53 per game). She finished the season with a school-record 692 kills. “That’s a career for most people,” Cortazzo says.

Opponents practically cower when Hall unleashes her most devastating weapon, a thunderous spike that, like a Fourth of July fireworks display, invariably elicits oohs and aahs. Which begs the question, how can someone so slight of build generate such fearsome power?

“Obviously it’s not my huge muscles,” says Hall. “Power comes a lot from the speed of your arm swing and the speed and intensity of your approach. So in high school, I worked a lot on that—arm speed and arm swing. I didn’t think I’d ever be a real powerful player if I didn’t have that.”

Her power to lift a program out of the depths is even more impressive. With Hall leading the charge, IUP has morphed from pretender to contender in the conference and become a national presence. The Indians qualified for their first NCAA tournament appearance in 2000 and this past season reached the round of sixteen by derailing their nemesis, PSAC champion Edinboro, 25-30, 30-22, 30-19, 35-33 in an epic semifinal match.

“That was a major accomplishment,” says Cortazzo. “They had sort of been our Achilles’ heel. We could never seem to get by them. No matter how close the match was, they always had the better of us. So it was sort of poetic justice to beat them there.”

That victory, Hall notes, provided the highlight of her season. A day later, Raschiatore enjoyed the high point of her season, finishing fourth at nationals. These two junior achievers, recipients of the PSAC’s highest honor in their respective sports, were second to none last fall in the conference.

Good thing they gave in to second thoughts after considering a collegiate experience without athletics. For if Laura Hall and Sara Raschiatore hadn’t changed their minds, they would never have changed the course of IUP sports history.