Pitt-Johnstown men’s basketball coach Bob Rukavina has never quite seen a player like Mountain Cats fifth-year senior John Paul Kromka in his more than four decades of coaching at the high school, junior college and NCAA Division II levels.

“He is without question the best defensive player I’ve ever coached,” said Rukavina, now in his 33rd season at Pitt-Johnstown. “I’ve never had a guy that can impact a game like he can.”

The 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward is the Mountain Cats’ all-time leader in blocks with 281 and counting, and ranks fourth all time in program history with 823 rebounds. He is leading Pitt-Johnstown with 91 rebounds this season, while his team-best 39 blocks is good for ninth best in Division II nationally.

Add in that the 2018 Gateway graduate is currently third in the country with a 69% field-goal percentage and ranks in fifth place on Pitt-Johnstown’s all-time scoring list with 1,659 career points, and that makes for a special player.

“To me, if you were to sit down and say what a college athlete should be all about, he defines it,” Rukavina said. “He really does. Today with kids there’s a lot of good players, but a lot of them are for themselves. They’re posting things on social media, and he doesn’t care about all that stuff. He’s refreshing in today’s world just to see a guy, all he cares about is winning.

“He stayed with his teammates that he’s been with for five years,” the coach added. “He’s loyal to his teammates, his school and coaches, and that’s really rare today.”

Kromka was one of three former WPIAL players recently named to the watch list for the Bevo Francis Award, which is presented to the top player in the country at the Division II, Division III, NAIA, USCAA and NCCAA levels.

IUP senior guard Shawndale Jones and West Liberty junior guard Bryce Butler were also named to the award watch list. Butler, a Latrobe graduate, is currently second in the nation with 153 field goals and is 20th in Division II with a 60% field-goal percentage. Jones, who played at North Hills and Kiski Prep, is currently 39th in the nation in scoring at 19.6 points per game.

Although any postseason accolades would be special, Kromka said he is more interested in leaving a lasting impact on his program through postseason play. He said he expects Pitt-Johnstown to make a run through the PSAC tournament and potentially earn a bid in the NCAA Division II tournament.

“I think it would just speak to the foundation we’ve been able to build over these last four years, and this is now the fifth year,” Kromka said. “We aren’t going to come out and be this super flashy team that is going to pass the airport test as they say, but we are going to play good fundamental basketball. That would kind of be just icing on the cake after all this is done if we could make the tournament.”

For John Paul Kromka, playing good defense is just as important as offense at Pitt-Johnstown. (Ali Single)

For Kromka, having that kind of success begins on the defensive end of the floor. He said he enjoys the “responsibility” of being the “big man” in the Mountain Cats’ man-to-man defensive sets.

“I think that defense is something I’ve always just valued, kind of just the same, if not more than offense,” Kromka said. “A lot of people can score and that’s great for the team, but if you’re able to play defense that’s a product of playing a complete game.”

Kromka’s versatility and his ability to switch on ball screens are what make him truly special on the defensive end, Rukavina said.

“He makes it difficult on the guys he’s guarding,” the coach said. “He can guard guys on the perimeter. He can guard guys down inside.

“We can pretty much do anything we need to do game-planning wise,” Rukavina added. “Being your biggest guy a lot of times, your big guy is a liability movement-wise. He can stay in front of anyone, and he’s just a strong athletic guy, too. He can do it all on defense, that’s for sure.”

And often that strong play on defense leads to chances on the offensive side of the floor. He is averaging a team-high 15.4 points per game this season.

“He’s just very, very efficient,” Rukavina said. “In fact, we call him in every few games and say, ‘John, you’re leading the country in field-goal percentage and you’re averaging nine or 10 shots a game. You need to shoot more.’ He’s so unselfish. He has the chance to be [Pitt-Johnstown’s] all-time leading scorer and he doesn’t even care.”

Gateway grad John Paul Kromka is good at getting the basketball into the right people’s hands at Pitt-Johnstown. (Ali Single)

Kromka is more interested in creating opportunities for his teammates. He is fourth on the team in assists with 34 this season, and is in the top 15 all time in program history.

In addition to Kromka, Pitt-Johnston has three players averaging double figures this season. Andrew Shull is scoring 10.9 points per game, while Ryan Smith and Jared Jakubick are each contributing 10.5.

As much as Kromka has been creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, he said he also credits his teammates for doing the same for him.

“Probably a lot of it has to do with my teammates being able to get me the ball in scoring positions,” Kromka said. “It’s a lot easier to make the buckets when you’re shooting from 5 feet away instead of 25 feet away.”

In addition to his strong play on the court, Rukavina is equally as proud of Kromka’s excellence in the classroom and as part of the Pitt-Johnstown community.

Kromka was treasurer of the university’s Engineering Club, president of the Student Advisory Committee to the NCAA and is a member of the Christian Fellowship for Student Athletes.

Rukavina said Kromka, who already graduated with an engineering degree, was offered a job by Westinghouse and is working some hours online for the company while pursuing a second degree in economics.

“All of my friends [in coaching] said, ‘I can’t believe he came back,’ but I said, ‘You don’t know him,’” Rukavina said. “He has priorities. What’s good and what’s decent and what’s proper. That’s what he does.

“He’s just a wonderful kid,” the coach added. “We got his little brother as a freshman. He’s the last one, and he’s going to be a good one, too.”

Kromka is one of eight children of Joe and Suzanne Kromka of Monroeville, who all played basketball at one time or another. His younger brother, Will, is a guard for the Mountain Cats.

While his family is proud of his basketball achievements, Kromka said his parents always stressed being a “well-rounded individual” to him and his siblings.

“At the end of the day they are just games and most likely you aren’t going to be able to fall back on that to provide for yourself for the future,” he said. “As much fun as basketball is, yes, it’s still just a game. I’m going to have as much fun with it as I can.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.