Mike Mastovich: 'He does it all': Versatile Kromka helps Mountain Cats engineer a spot atop PSAC West

·7 min read

Jan. 22—Joe Batt had just splashed perhaps the biggest 3-point shot of his college career, beating the buzzer to hand the Pitt-Johnstown men's basketball team a one-point victory over Gannon University.

Naturally, Batt celebrated after scoring with 1.3 seconds left in that January game at the Sports Center two years ago.

The sharp-shooting guard then noticed another player jubilantly savoring the moment. His Pitt-Johnstown roommate John Paul Kromka, who is 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, nearly knocked over Batt in his joy.

"I had a game-winning shot against Gannon and he was more excited for me than I think I was," Batt said after Pitt-Johnstown defeated Mansfield University on Wednesday night. "You would have thought he made the shot. He came back sprinting and was excited for me."

Kromka is the Mountain Cats' top scorer, rebounder and shot blocker.

The versatile junior forward is also a leader and a friend.

'He knew how to play'

A three-year starter from Monroeville, Kromka is part of a veteran group of seven juniors on a 12-3 Mountain Cats squad that holds a share of the PSAC Western Division lead with an 8-1 mark entering Saturday night's game against Seton Hill University at the Sports Center.

"We saw him since he was a sophomore in high school, and he knew how to play," head coach Bob Rukavina said of Gateway High School graduate Kromka. "He came from a big family of basketball tradition, starting with his dad. I actually saw his dad when he played at Ford City. They lost in the WPIAL championship (in 1978-79) on a last-second shot. I was actually at that game.

"It's just a big tradition. On his mother's side, they're all basketball players."

Indeed, Kromka's parents, Joe and Suzanne, raised eight children, all of them basketball players at Gateway High School, where John Paul scored 1,000 career points.

Playing basketball with his siblings and taking guidance from supportive parents helped John Paul evolve on and off the court.

"I just learned leadership ever since I was little watching older siblings play basketball and how they've kind of helped raise me," John Paul Kromka said.

"My parents, I learned from them and how they act. I learned from them how to lead by example and that's really what I try to do.

"I know how important that is," he said.

"If someone is out there working, but they're not trying their best, then it's going to make everyone else say, 'Oh, it's OK for us to slack off, too. It doesn't really matter.'

"If you see a guy out there who is working his butt off trying to get better, then everyone will say, 'Hey, I should probably try to do that too.' "

'Level-headed all the time'

Kromka has provided a great example for his Pitt-Johnstown teammates.

He and junior play-making guard Fred Mulbah each enter Saturday's game with 243 points, a 16.2 points a game average.

Kromka's 114 rebounds (7.6 average), 37 blocks (2.5) and .671 field goal percentage all lead the Mountain Cats, who have won five consecutive games. His 1,181 career points, 611 rebounds and 195 blocks reveal the impact he's had in two-plus seasons.

"When he came in and started practicing, he just did everything right," Rukavina said. "We knew he was going to be a starter right away.

"I named him a captain as a sophomore," the Mountain Cats coach added. "John Paul was the first sophomore I ever named captain. He just was a leader. He never got mad about calls. He just plays through everything. He's very level-headed all the time."

Kromka displayed those traits in his first game with the Mountain Cats.

Pitt-Johnstown and 16th-ranked Virginia State University were tied at 58-all with 1 second left in a season-opening contest during the 2018 Indiana (Pa.) Tournament.

The freshman Kromka made a free throw to give Pitt-Johnstown a one-point victory.

"He went to the foul line with a one-and-one with the score tied and 1 second left," Rukavina said. "He knocked down the shot and won the first game of his college career. That's something you don't forget as a coach."

Engineering success

Kromka accumulated plenty of accolades in his first two seasons. In 2018-19, he was PSAC West Freshman of the Year. and in 2019-20, Kroma was first-team all-PSAC West selection and earned his second PSAC West Defensive Player of the Year honor.

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last season.

Pitt-Johnstown is 51-25 since Kromka arrived with the current junior class, including a 22-9 record in 2019-20 as the Mountain Cats advanced to the second round of the PSAC Tournament.

His statistical achievements are even more impressive considering Kromka has a 3.9 grade-point average as a mechanical engineering major.

"It's a lot of work," Kromka said of balancing basketball and his major. "It's nice because I know other guys, friends in the engineering program. I have a good study group. We can work together and bounce ideas off each other."

There still is plenty of basketball to be played this season. But in the long-term, Kromka potentially could graduate this spring if he elects not to seek a second degree, Rukavina said.

He still has a year of basketball eligibility remaining due to the COVID-19 season in 2020-21.

"I've talked to a lot of people," Kromka said. "I'd like to come back and stay at UPJ, but there is a lot of stuff we still have to figure out and work out the details. It definitely would be a lot of fun to come back and play with these guys for another year."

Rukavina also is recruiting Kromka's younger brother, Will, out of Gateway High.

"That would be another thing that would make it a lot of fun to be here next year," Kromka said of potentially playing on the same team as Will.

Rukavina said there are different scenarios that might result in Kromka's playing a senior season of basketball in 2022-23.

"He's a 3.9 mechanical engineering student. Pitt has a nuclear engineering program, online only," Rukavina said. "We've already gotten permission from Pitt that he could be a student here and take it online.

"We have to go to the NCAA."

Batt intends to return after this season and wouldn't mind having his roommate/teammate back.

"He's just our centerpiece. He does it all for us offensively and defensively," Batt said. "Being his roommate, I follow his example. I've been doing that for a long time, seeing his work ethic on and off the court. It helps me be a better player and person."

Kromka and the Mountain Cats have their focus on Seton Hill on Saturday. Another challenge awaits on Monday, when NCAA Division II sixth-ranked Indiana (Pa.) (13-1, 8-1) travels to the Sports Center with the PSAC West lead at stake.

"I think the sky is the limit for this team," Kromka said. "I think that we've done a lot, even short-staffed with guys out due to injuries. I think we can go very far this year.

"Usually, spring break is right around when the PSAC Tournament is and the NCAA Tournament. In my head, I'm telling myself, 'Let's not go home for spring break. Let's stay at the school and keep playing basketball.' "

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.