Dani, Danny and the new look Eagles

Thanks to Dani Atkinson and her teammates, Danny Young-Uhrich and Juniata are nationally ranked for the first time in a while.
Juniata College athletics file photo

Juniata suffered through a 2-12 Landmark Conference season in 2016-17, and the Eagles’ fifth-place prediction in the preseason poll showed there was little consensus they would contend among the league’s power teams.

Juniata has set that script ablaze.

The Eagles have started the year 7-0, stamping themselves as the real deal with a 62-54 win over then-16th ranked Scranton, the league’s defending champ, Dec. 2 in Huntingdon.

“It’s too early to celebrate too much, but this definitely legitimizes our record,” said head coach Danny Young-Uhrich, herself a former star player at JC. “Win or lose, this game was going to be a turning point. Our girls somehow always get up for Scranton.”

Nobody was more “up” than senior Dani Atkinson. Already the league’s leading scorer so far and the previous week’s conference player of the week, Atkinson led all scorers with 23 points and, perhaps more importantly, shut down Scranton’s best player, Bridgette Mann. Mann, with Atkinson assigned to her most of the night, went scoreless in the first half, and ended up with 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting.

It was the type of performance that led Young-Uhrich to recruit Atkinson in the first place.

“Dani was actually recruited to play defense,” Young-Uhrich said. “Because we’ve sometimes been so offensively anemic, she was pressed into more offensive service. In big games like this, she has to play both ends.”

That comment is a refreshing bit of honesty: coaches understand many players will not have anything left for offense if they give maximum defensive effort on every possession by an opponent. That, however, does not apply to Atkinson.

“She is definitely a good athlete,” Young-Uhrich said. “She had 38 minutes (against Scranton) and she averages 36 or 37 a game (now 34.1 after Saturday’s game against Wilkes). She’s like a machine. I tell her she can take herself out. I’ll keep her in as long as I can. She’s tough. She’s such a competitor.”

Young-Uhrich could not always say the same about the Eagles’ second-leading scorer, Morgan Instone. The 6-footer sophomore fought leg pain, the source of which has not been fully identified, throughout her freshman year. She appeared in just 15 games and averaged only 8.1 minutes, with pedestrian contributions of scoring and rebounding.

She has, according to her coach, found ways to manage the afflictions to her legs, and the results have been dramatic. Instone has started every game this season and played an average of 24.6 minutes. She has averaged 12.9 points, eight rebounds and nearly three blocks per game and was selected to the D3hoops.com Team of the Week following the Eagles' victory over Scranton.

Her emergence has come at a perfect time. The Eagles have a potential dominant center in 6-4 freshman Gracie Stauffer. Stauffer is averaging 6.4 rebounds in just 15.8 minutes per game. The combination gives Juniata perhaps its best pair of post players since 2011, when current assistant coach Kate McDonald was a freshman. She combined with Jen Hnatuck to boost the Eagles to a 22-6 record and second-round NCAA Tournament appearance. Young-Uhrich said her current JC team reminds her of that one.

Atkinson, the Landmark’s leading scorer at 17.1 points per game, appreciates the attention her taller teammates attract from opponents.

“They’re just really fun to play with,” Atkinson said. “We haven’t really had too many tall girls in the past. It’s nice to work off of.”

“Morgan scores the points,” Young Uhrich said. “Gracie gets the rebounds. It’s the perfect combination.”

Juniata is 8-0 and ranked No. 20 after Saturday’s 77-44 laugher at Wilkes. Seniors Rachel Anstine and Veronica Cosmopolis each have averaged just over eight points per game. Just one thing is left to round out the team.

“We now just need a deadly three-point shooter and we’ll be all set,” Young-Uhrich said. “We’re trying to groom one from one of our guards.”

With the likes of Catholic and Moravian still ahead, as well as a return trip to Scranton, the Eagles will gladly welcome all the weapons they can get.

Moravian’s Capuano a two-time honoree

Sophomore Maddie Capuano earned her second Landmark Conference player-of-the-week award in three weeks Monday. She averaged 14 points, six assists and 3.3 rebounds in the Greyhounds’ three wins last week. She won the award previously with a 23-point, 10-rebound effort in a win against DeSales. Capuano is second in the league in assists and steals and third in scoring.

Drew’s Aldrich a double-double dispenser

Nate Aldrich posted double-doubles in each of Drew’s three wins last week to take the Landmark men’s weekly award. He went for 18 points and 18 rebounds last Tuesday against King’s, posted 14 and 11 against FDU-Florham and scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against St. Elizabeth. Aldrich shot 71.9 percent in the three games.

Albright ‘Rowles’ thanks to Fred

Fred Rowles led the Lions to a non-conference win over then No. 25 Franklin & Marshall to earn the Commonwealth Conference’s weekly honor. Rowles scored a season-high 23 points and set career marks with 13 rebounds and five steals in Albright’s win in Reading. On the women’s side, Shelby Mueller averaged 17.5 points and 14 rebounds and reached the 1,000-point plateau to lead Lycoming to a pair of women’s. She is the CC’s women’s player of the week.

Coming up

York will be the place to be Wednesday night. The undefeated Spartans men’s team will take on No. 12 Swarthmore, also undefeated, at 8 p.m. The York women, who stand at 6-2, will take on Scranton, now 22nd in the rankings, at 6 p.m.

Phil Soto-Ortiz

Phil Soto-Ortiz has been a play-by-play sportscaster for basketball, football and lacrosse at Franklin & Marshall College since 2010, and has also called games at Division II St. Anselm College in New Hampshire and at high schools around Connecticut. He writes the annual Centennial College football preview for D3football.com's Kickoff publication and has covered sports for the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News and several dailies and weeklies in Fairfield County, Connecticut. He graduated from Syracuse University, where he called the play-by-play of the women?s basketball team's games, including their last win over the UConn Huskies.
2014-16 columnist:Ryan Scott
2013-14 columnist: Rob Knox
2012-13 columnist: Pete Barrett
2011-12 columnist: Brian Lester