Dec. 13, 2006
Story and Photo by Brandon Hansen
A couple herniated disks were a blessing in disguise for sophomore basketball player Matt Penoncello.
While working out during his freshman year at Eastern Washington University, Penoncello suffered a back injury that forced him to redshirt the 2004-2005 season.
"It was a long road to recovery," said Penoncello. "My back would be good one week and then go back (to hurting) again."
The 2004 graduate of Moscow High School went through a four-month recovery process that had him working on his core muscles and spending lots of time jogging in the pool. Penoncello credits a large part of his return to form to the EWU athletic training staff, in particular, Angie Taylor.
"They had a big hand in keeping me mentally in it," he said.
Also redshirting that year was Rodney Stuckey and Kellen Williams, two Eagles who have now made a huge impact on the court. Like Penoncello, they knew what it was like being sidelined and unable to practice with the team.
"So at a practice we would play against one another," said Penoncello. "We were in the gym a lot together,"
"Pen" played in high school in Moscow in the shadows of the University of Idaho -- Eastern's opponent on Dec. 21. He was selected to the Spokane Spokesman-Review All-North Idaho team and led his team to the State 4A Tournament while averaging 14.6 points per game. Despite all this, however, he said he was a "soft" player.
"But after playing against a competitor like Rodney, who's so physical, I became a totally different player," said Penoncello. "I think it made me a better competitor."
After his redshirt season, Penoncello took to the court in the 2005-06 season as Eastern won seven more games than the year before to finish 15-15. He scored 10 points in the first game of his career in a victory over Pacific Lutheran.
"It was indescribable," said Penoncello of being able to compete again. "You just never know what it's like until it's there."
And compete he did. He started 16 games and scored in double figures nine times, including six of Eastern's last 10 games. He finished with averages of 6.6 points and 1.7 assists per game. He was also named the team's defensive player of the year.
Through EWU's first 10 games this year, Penoncello was averaging 4.8 points, 2.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds in an average of 22.6 minutes of action per game. Penoncello has transformed into a gritty defender and a player that can score when the team calls upon him.
And that's a change seen throughout the entire EWU Men's Basketball team, which could be the most physically-gifted squad that Cheney has ever seen.
"We're right there (with top college basketball programs)," said Penoncello, who pointed towards the Eagles 90-83 near miss against the nationally-ranked Washington Huskies. "I don't even feel we played that well at Washington and we stayed right in there."
And just as the Eagles have bounced back from an 8-20 campaign in 2004-2005, Penoncello bounced back from his injury during his freshman year. It was a season where not only did he have to get used to college but to a new coach.
The 6-foot-5 forward had originally been recruited by then EWU coach Ray Giacoletti, who took the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament in 2003-2004.
"My parents felt like he was the right guy," said Penoncello.
When Giacoletti went to Utah to coach, he was reassured by Mike Burns.
"He went and saw everyone when he got the job," said Penoncello. "Our relationship is a healthy player-coach relationship."
Last year under Burns, Penoncello ranked seventh in the Big Sky in three-point percentage (.444) and was 11th in three pointers made per game (1.43).
And his family doesn't have to go very far to watch him play. His father, Steve, is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Idaho.
"That stuff (thermal dynamics) is not for me," said Penoncello with a smile. "He's a very knowledgeable man."
And while there was no pressure for Matt to become a Vandal, the Eagle and his brother Nick did manage to make a basketball fan out of their father. Once Matt and Nick started playing basketball in high school, his father was hooked on hoops.
"He was a baseball guy -- and a golf guy," said Penoncello. "He'll get into it now, he gets pretty excited about college basketball on television."