Welcome to the club: Pitt club hoops supplants varsity squad as school’s national contender

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Welcome to the club: Pitt club hoops supplants varsity squad as school’s national contender

Pitt men's club basketball team practices at Trees Hall. David Leftwich | For The Pitt News

Pitt men's club basketball team practices at Trees Hall. David Leftwich | For The Pitt News

Pitt men's club basketball team practices at Trees Hall. David Leftwich | For The Pitt News

Pitt men's club basketball team practices at Trees Hall. David Leftwich | For The Pitt News

By David Leftwich | Staff Writer

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Two years ago, Pitt had a perennial powerhouse varsity men’s basketball team, but no corresponding club for students to join.

Now, the Panthers varsity team sits in the ACC’s cellar, while the club hoops team has established itself as one of the nation’s best in just its second year.

Men’s club basketball became the 40th club sport listed in Pitt’s directory last year, thanks to junior Conner Hofmeister. The business and psychology double major had an urge to experience the thrill of competitive hoops that he had been missing since high school, but when he looked for an outlet at Pitt, he couldn’t find one.

“I think one the biggest reasons [why no one created a team in the past] is that Pitt is very landlocked,” Hofmeister said, meaning there wasn’t much space for another team to practice. “Just getting space for our first year was such an uphill battle.”

The group includes several players who turned down scholarship offers from Division III teams out of high school to come to Pitt instead, making it more competitive than pickup and, this year, more successful than Pitt’s varsity team.

“I think about it all the time, how different it would be if I went and played there [at Division III schools] versus coming to Pitt, but club basketball is a good median for going to a big school and still being able to play competitively,” said junior point guard Matt Renzi, a finance and marketing double major.

Hofmeister registered the club with the National Club Basketball Association, finding a place for the team in the North Atlantic – South Conference alongside Bryant and Stratton, Carnegie Mellon, Kent State, Robert Morris and West Virginia.

After holding tryouts with about 30 prospective players, Hofmeister narrowed the roster down to 14 and organized weekly times to practice at Trees Hall. But there was still a crucial unfilled position — head coach.

Without a coach, Hofmeister instituted an inclusive method of decision-making, allowing every player to submit their input on the starting lineup and preferred playing times via email, then making decisions based on majority rule.

“From the start of the first year, I always told myself I want this to be democratic,” Hofmeister said. “These are the guys who started club basketball, and we needed to find, as a unit, how we were going to go about finding our identity.”

Pitt’s club team experienced early success with this makeshift group, finishing its first season with an 8-4 record in conference play.

But disorganization plagued the team as Hofmeister tried to navigate the bureaucracy of Student Affairs and the NCBBA. Meanwhile, the 14 players needed to continue to get to know one another and truly learn to play as a team.

With a year of experience to their credit, Pitt needed a head coach to help take the next step toward winning its conference and, eventually, the national championship.

Rob Bell, who met Hofmeister while helping him establish the team through his former job at the NCBBA, told the Panthers he would be happy to coach them if he had the opportunity. After Bell left the NCBBA for another job with the real estate company Fore Property, Hofmeister jumped on the opportunity and offered Bell the head coach position.

The team could have paid Bell to join, although it would have meant raising the members’ dues, which were $135 this year. Instead, Bell refused to take a salary, joining the team strictly due to his love for the game.

“We have a bunch of smart kids, which makes coaching them easy because they can pick up on things, and they’re talented,” Bell said. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Bell, a former varsity basketball coach at Trinity High School in Washington, Pennsylvania, created a more organized environment and helped players break the habit of ball dominance — or ball hogging, as it’s informally called.

Now there’s a different feel to the team’s practices at Trees. Unlike the makeshift pickup games on the surrounding courts, there is a clear focus and organization to what the club is doing.

The team starts with drills focused on fine-tuning individual skills such as agility and post moves. As the practice progresses, the intensity rises, with less breaks between drills and more sequences practicing live against one another. Toward the end of the session, the practice breaks out into a full-throttle scrimmage.

One of the reasons Bell enjoys this group of players is their commitment to the team. The players almost never miss any of their three practices a week or the grueling three-game weekends.

The team held tryouts again this year, where about 40 people showed up to try to secure one of the 14 coveted roster spots. Pitt came away with a new lineup, including two new starters, and played a tough tournament schedule this fall.

The team faced some top-notch competition, including one of Ohio State’s four club teams, narrowly losing by four points, but receiving valuable game experience before heading into season play in the winter.

The Panthers currently sit one game ahead of Kent State in the loss column in the race for first place in the conference. Having swept their first two weekends of play against CMU and WVU, the team climbed to No. 10 in the NCBBA national rankings for the first time in program history.

Pitt followed that up with two more wins against Kent State last weekend before suffering its first loss of the season on Sunday, 82-72. But the Panthers still took two out of three from the Golden Flashes to move to 8-1 on the year.

At the halfway mark in the season, as Pitt’s varsity team toils at the bottom of the ACC standings with no turnaround in sight, the club team’s mindset is conference championship or bust.

The team returns to action for a three-game slate Feb. 18, at Robert Morris, then wraps up the regular season at Trees Hall with three games versus Bryant and Stratton March 4-5. The conference championship is scheduled for March 25, while the National Championship, if Pitt makes it, takes place at LaRoche College April 7.

To clinch a spot in the regional playoffs, the Panthers will likely need to go undefeated from this point on.

“The long-term goal is to obviously win the national championship,” Renzi said. “In order to qualify for that, we need to finish first in our conference, and, for that to happen, we can’t lose in our conference.”

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