It has been quite some time since Shippensburg basketball has been competitive in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. In fact, it has been nine seasons since the Raiders have posted a winning record. The most wins they have seen in a single season since that 17-14 season back in 2006-2007 was the 13 wins they logged last year.
This year’s Raiders are looking to make that all a memory. They currently sit at 12-5 and a mere two games out of first place in the PSAC East Division. The turnaround has been one of the more remarkable ones in DII. It was started by head coach Chris Fite.
“I love the character of the group of guys that we have,” SU head coach Chris Fite said. “They have really bought into what we’re preaching. They are embracing the concept of trying to get better everyday and that we are worthy of success here. We’ve got great young talent, great competitors and guys that take great pride in working hard each day and finding ways to get it done.”
Fite took the helms in the 2013-14 season that saw SU win a mere three games. A year later, the Raiders would see a ten-game improvement, finish at 13-14 and make an appearance in the PSAC Tournament. This season, he finds himself two wins away from securing that winning record that has been nearly a decade in the making.
“As good as last year was as far as progress goes, we still felt as though we could have done better,” Fite said of last season’s tremendous improvement. “We still felt as though we had something to prove. Going into this season, it was great that we got back to a respectable level, but we still have a bit of a chip on our shoulder as far as wanting to establish ourselves as one of the top teams in the conference.”
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Despite losing its All-Conference big man Dylan Edgar, SU hasn’t missed a beat. A large part of that has been the play of 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Dustin Sleva.
Sleva hails from Montour High School in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. Despite rising to be one of DII’s premier big men, it wasn’t always that way for Sleva. His freshman year, he was a 5-foot-11 point guard for his high school team.
“My dad was a late bloomer,” Sleva explained. “I was tall when I was young, but then everybody started passing me up. My junior year I really sprouted up. I was about 6-foot-4 my senior year, but then still I grew more and added some weight after that.”
His dad was part of the reason that Sleva is the athlete he is today. “I was playing baseball in my diapers,” Sleva joked about his athletic genetics. His father was a multi-sport star in high school who went on to play football in college, while his mother was an Athlete of the Year as a softball pitcher.
As Sleva began to grow into his size, he grabbed the attention of Fite who was quickly on the recruiting trail after his future star big man.
“What I loved about Dustin was that at first glance he had tremendous footwork, great hands and touch around the basket,” Fite said. “He scores in a lot of different ways. He was absolutely the missing piece of the puzzle, and I knew that he was going to be a tremendous player in our conference that we could build around. There were games we went to watch him and he didn’t light it up offensively, but his leadership qualities and his basketball IQ were really high, he had the right DNA for the pieces we were trying to put together here.”
Fite himself was a 6-foot-9 forward for the 1990 national champion Rochester team. He was a two time All-American who scored over 2,000 points and ripped down over 1,000 rebounds in his collegiate career.
“He [Fite] told me that my game emulated what he used to do,” Sleva said of his recruitment experience. “That he played a lot like me. He really made an effort to get me here, and that’s really why I came here. He understands my skill set and puts me in a position to make plays for my teammates. He allows me to be versatile, not just tell me I’m a post player or a three-point shooter. He lets me create.”
Sleva had a strong freshman season. He put up 8.6 points and 4.9 rebounds a night during his debut campaign. He started 27 games and averaged 27.4 minutes a night, but with Edgar — the 6-foot-10, 260-pound offensive beast — garnering the attention of the offense, whereas Sleva was more of a role player.
“Dylan was the main focus of our offense,” Sleva said. “My goal was to get him the ball as much as possible and play my role where coach needed me. I didn’t have the versatility that I have this year, I just played my role the best way I thought I should play my role.”
This year was different. Sleva was going to settle into the big man role. He would not only need to become a leader on the stat sheet, but on the court as well. It was a role he was prepared to take on.
“My junior year, going into my senior year was similar,” Sleva explained. “My point guard [Devin Wilson who now plays for Virginia Tech] left, so I had to become one of the leaders. That experience made this easier. Especially because we have two great senior leaders in Abe Massaley and Tony Ellis, it’s not just me by myself.”
Sleva’s start to the season may have seemed a bit slow. He double-doubled just twice in his first five games. He was an uncharacteristic 1-for-6 from three point land in the Raiders' loss to East Straudsburg in the third game of the season. A switch clicked after that and Sleva turned it on, becoming a consistent rebounding and scoring machine. He credits one of his own opponents as part of the motivation behind his turnaround.
“I saw Matt Wiseley, the way he attacked the glass,” Sleva said of West Chester's big man who happens to be eighth in the nation in rebounding. “It was a mentality type of thing — ‘No one is stopping me to get the rebound.' I’m a bit taller than him, I have the same timing as him, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’ And we were struggling on the glass early, so after that West Chester game I just tried to get as many boards as I could.”
And that’s exactly what Sleva has done. He currently leads the nation with 11 double-doubles, is second in DII with 197 rebounds and third in the country in rebounds per game at 11.6. Through it all, he has remained that versatile player who can play both inside and out, as he has hit 29 of 76 (38 percent) of his three point attempts and is averaging 13.7 points a contest.
This weekend (the game was recently moved from Saturday to Sunday with the impending winter storm), Fite, Sleva and the red-hot Raiders have a big home matchup against perennial PSAC contenders East Straudsburg. Both teams head into the contest amid big win streaks — SU at seven and ESU at eight. SU opened its PSAC season at ESU on November 18 with a 85-61 loss. But that was two months ago and only the third game of the season.
“We’re a completely different team,” Sleva said of their first matchup with ESU. “We were trying to find our identity at the beginning of the year. We’re really a deep team, and we just started to figure it out. We love playing with each other and that’s the key."
“We’ve already watched the film, I showed them the scoreboard,” Fite said of the Raiders preparation for their big game. “We’re a different team now, but we need to be aware of what happened and what went wrong last time we played them. This will certainly show us where we are at. East Stroudsburg has been the cream of the crop for years and they have a great team again this year, so it will be a great challenge for us.”
Fite has his Raiders on pace to complete one of the more remarkable turnarounds in DII. SU averagd only nine wins a season over the past eight years, and the Raiders are poised to reach that elusive winning record. The continuing improvement from each season under Fite’s tutelage is only more reason for continued optimism.
“Last year, we felt satisfied,” Sleva said of the difference from last season to now. “We beat East Straudsburg, but then we went on a five-game losing streak. This year we are hungry. We all play together, we love getting shots for other people. It’s really fun, practices are fun, it’s not a burden to practice.”
“We’re very excited,” Fite said of their 12-5 start. “We’re trying not to get too far ahead of ourselves, that’s part of the challenge of being a coach. Part of the reason we have had the success that we have is because we have taken it one game at a time and we have to continue that moving forward.”