The Roman god Janus, with his two faces—one in front, one in back—could gaze in two directions at once.
Were women’s basketball coach Cindy Martin similarly blessed, she would surely pass her days beaming like a toddler on Christmas morning.
Cindy Martin, foreground, with the PSAC Championship trophy; Katie Glaws, left, with a memento of the team’s appearance in the NCAA tournament; and Jahzinga Tracey
Look to the immediate past and Martin sees a 24-9 season highlighted by a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship and a pair of NCAA Division II tournament victories. Look to the immediate future and she sees what could well be an even better team waiting in the wings.
“I always think the sky’s the limit,” said Martin, who was named the PSAC West Coach of the Year after IUP posted the second-best win total in school history. “Our team’s goal next season is to get back to the NCAA tournament, get back to the regional championship game, and win it to advance to the Elite Eight.”
The Crimson Hawks nearly achieved that last objective in March. Despite facing odds longer than Methuselah’s beard, they battled host Glenville State (W.Va.) down to the wire in a showdown for the East Region title. Only with a last-minute surge did the Pioneers, backed by a boisterous partisan crowd, seal a 65-59 victory and punch their ticket to the Elite Eight in Kearney, Neb.
Yet, even in defeat, IUP sent an unmistakable message: By extending the nation’s second-ranked team to the limit, the Crimson Hawks announced they had arrived as one of the premier programs in the land.
“Great teams step up, and I think our ladies really stepped up to the challenge,” Martin said. “I think we played to the best of our ability. It was just not our night to win the game. Glenville State happened to be the better team that particular night the last two minutes.”
The Pioneers, who had throttled twenty-six consecutive victims by an average margin of 23.3 points, considered themselves fortunate to survive against the overachieving underdogs from IUP.
“They were an incredible team, but I still think we could’ve beat them,” said sophomore forward Jahzinga Tracey (right), the PSAC West Player of the Year. “We played a great first half—we were up at halftime [29-24]. Then in the second half it kind of slipped away from us and we lost.”
That closed the book on a glorious season of achievement at IUP. The Crimson Hawks claimed the conference crown only two years removed from the worst record in school history (9-18) and a last-place finish in the PSAC West. They thrashed Edinboro (81-58) and host Millersville (71-53) in the first two rounds of the conference tournament and then exorcised a host of demons by whipping California (63-53) in the title game.
The Vulcans, who had captured four of the previous five PSAC championships—not to mention a national crown in 2004—toyed with IUP like a cat with a mouse in years past. But this season the Crimson Hawks were the mouse that roared. Tracey scored twenty points and grabbed twelve rebounds to help dethrone the Vulcans and secure IUP’s first conference title since 1988.
“The one game I’ll always remember is the Cal game, beating them for the championship,” said Tracey, who earned tourney MVP honors. “To be the best you have to beat the best, and that’s what we did.”
The Crimson Hawks continued their sizzling postseason run in the NCAAs, ousting Barton (N.C.) by a 75-61 score before thumping long-time nemesis Pitt Johnstown, 75-59. The Lady Cats were 34-4 all-time against IUP entering their second-round matchup.
“We beat teams people didn’t think we could beat,” Martin said. “I’m just very proud of how far we did make it. We had a tremendous season.”
Not even a prophet the equal of Nostradamus could have predicted that a team featuring three sophomores and two freshmen in its regular seven-player rotation and only one starter over six feet tall would reach the regional final. Fact is, even the Crimson Hawks were taken by surprise.
“I think we exceeded our expectations,” said guard Katie Glaws (left), the lone senior starter, who set single-season (71) and career (170) records for three-pointers. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to win the PSAC and make it to the NCAA tournament. But once we got there, things kind of fell into place for us. We were working together so well at that point.”
As usual, Tracey spearheaded the charge. She wound up leading IUP in scoring (18.5), rebounds (9.3), steals (98), and blocked shots (23); set a single-season school record with 612 points; and helped the Crimson Hawks clinch the PSAC West title with a virtuoso thirty-six-point, fourteen-rebound performance against Shippensburg.
“Every great team has great players, and I think Jahzinga Tracey is a great player,” Martin said. “Her confidence has greatly improved. She was able to put aside any fears she had this season and let us count on her as a go-to player. She did a fantastic job. I’m truly excited about the next two years because she’s a phenomenal player.”
Optimism abounds at IUP because Tracey is merely one component of a stellar returning cast. Juniors-to-be Staci Heberling and Kylie Miller have already put in two years as starters, and Hilary Swope and Kierstin Filla played significant minutes last season as freshmen. Marcia Mpfumo, a 6-2 junior from Mozambique who transferred to IUP a year ago, is healthy again after sitting out last season with a knee injury and is ready to contribute. Martin will also welcome a sterling class of recruits, headed by Claysburg-Kimmel High School graduate Lacey Claar, the 2007 Pennsylvania Class A Player of the Year.
Given the abundance of talent on hand, the Crimson Hawks appear poised to advance again to the regional final—and perhaps beyond.
“We have great players coming back and some really good players coming in,” said Glaws, who is bound for graduate school at Ohio State. “I see them at least getting to where we were this year, but they definitely could go further. I think it’s realistic to put a national championship as a goal.”
Martin didn’t specifically address that topic in a recent interview, but in looking to the future, perhaps it’s instructive to simultaneously look in the opposite direction, Janus-like. When she was hired in May, 2005, the new coach bluntly declared there was no reason why IUP couldn’t win a PSAC title by her third season and an NCAA crown by her fourth.
A conference championship is already in the past. A national championship might well loom in the future.
No matter which direction she looks, Cindy Martin can’t help beaming like a kid at Christmas.