Matt Penecale wasn’t sure how he would react.
The former Abington and West Chester basketball standout is prepared to make his return to the hardwood, even if he had to go halfway around the world to do it. After exhausting his eligibility following the 2018-19 season, Penecale spent a year away from competitive basketball but the will to keep going never faded.
Taking a leap of faith and trusting in his abilities, Penecale earned his first professional contract with Hapoel Hevel Modi’in in the Israeli National League on December 17. After leaving his stamp at Abington and West Chester, Penecale still didn’t know what he would feel the first time his number would be called to go in.
“It’s going to be a surreal feeling regardless but the fact it’s been March of 2019 I last played in a real game and all the hard work, advocating for myself and exhausting all these avenues to get here and follow my dream and take it from there, it’s going to be a wild feeling,” Penecale said from Israel on Sunday. “I’ve wanted to play professionally since I was a kid and now I’m right on the cusp of it and I can’t wait.”
Penecale’s journey to signing as a professional athlete fit right in with the rest of his career trajectory as a really good player who never seemed to get the right recognition. In high school, he was a four-year varsity player, starting out as a power forward out of need before moving to point guard for the Ghosts.
He graduated as a top 10 scorer and top five assister in program history, helped Abington to the PIAA 4A semifinals in the 2013-14 season and the District 1 4A championship in the 2014-15 season as a senior. Ghosts coach Charles Grasty liked to say that Penecale could have run practice by himself if needed and the 6-foot-4 guard willingly sacrificed his scoring while focusing on rebounding, assists and defending the other team’s best player every night but still surpassed 1,000 points.
Even with his combination of size, scoring, passing, defense and team-first mindset, there wasn’t significant interest. A terrific student, Penecale weighed some high-academic institutions before ultimately deciding to play at West Chester in the PSAC, one of the best Division II conferences in the country.
“I thought I could have been a D-I player, that didn’t work out but at West Chester I embraced making the best of my situation,” Penecale said.
He most certainly did, again surpassing 1,000 career points but also ended his four-year run with 505 assists, the all-time career leader for the program and left his name on several other lists including free throw percentage and steals. However, while his playing time at West Chester ended in 2019, his time at the university was not done.
A dual-major in physics and exercise science, Penecale graduated last spring with two degrees but also a void created by not having basketball as a regular part of his life. He did what he could to stay around the game, working out with other college players and alumni or playing in rec leagues, but it was never the same.
Penecale compiled a highlight tape and started reaching out to agents, finally linking up with one and starting to explore opportunities overseas. With most teams in Europe having limits on how many American players they can carry on their roster, Israel presented a unique opportunity.
“I could get citizenship over here because my mom is Jewish, so that could really help me out,” Penecale said. “I had to navigate this whole process, but eventually things came together, I got approved and learned there were some teams over here who were interested.”
Gaining dual-citizenship doesn’t happen overnight and Penecale said he actually began that process shortly after he finished school but didn’t get the final decision until late this fall. In the meantime, with college ball and most professional leagues shut down, he got back in the gym with a true Abington select team.
A group of Ghosts greats including Penecale, Anthony Durham, a Rider alum now playing overseas, current Villanova redshirt freshman forward Eric Dixon, Penn sophomore Lucas Monroe, Kutztown alum Anthony Lee, Amir Hinton of the G-League’s Westchester Knicks and Pepperdine sophomore Robbie Heath and a few others met regularly over the summer to work out together and play. Penecale was also working with trainer Jim Ferris, who runs GYM Ferris Fitness servicing local pro, college, high school and recreational athletes to stay sharp while waiting for opportunities.
Even through all that, Penecale’s journey was just getting started. With no guarantee of a contract and needing to put his best marketing skills to work, Penecale hopped a plane to Israel to try and earn his place.
“People are interested, but by that point, I hadn’t played in almost two years so they don’t know if you’re in shape, if you’re hurt and my film was so old, I had to come on my own and start working out with these teams,” Penecale said. “It was out of pocket, I’ve been here about a month bouncing around from AirBnB to AirBnB. It was a crazy journey, a long journey but I couldn’t be happier to be here.”
Of course, he had to quarantine for a two weeks upon arrival, then set out across the country to work out for the teams that had expressed interest. Hevel Modi’in was his first stop and they had Penecale come back for an extended tryout period before making the move to sign him.
“This was in season for them, so between game days and days off, I was bouncing around watching and trying to learn plays,” Penecale said. “This wasn’t like preseason, these guys were already rolling a bit and I was trying to earn a spot. After about two-and-a-half weeks of working out, the coach had seen enough and decided to pick me up.”
His initial base of operations was Tel Aviv, which Penecale described as a big city right on the beach but once he signed, Hevel Modi’in set him up with an apartment in the town of Shoham. With the situation so fluid, he had to keep his Israeli excursion a secret, eventually explaining to a few baffled friends why he never seemed to be around or answering their calls with the seven-hour time difference.
In preparing to go overseas, Penecale said one key piece of advice he got was to not act cocky or entitled during his workouts because it was easy way to be dismissed and burn bridges with potentially interested teams. His style of play was never catered to be showy anyway and he tried to stick with the mentality of being team-first and always playing hard he learned at Abington and West Chester.
The idea of being a professional athlete curates a certain image that is often quite far from the reality.
“I was pretty aware that before I got signed, everything would be at my own expense and once I did, it was not going to be easy whatsoever,” Penecale said. “My teammate Jackson Hyland from West Chester played in England and he told me it can get lonely, you’re in your apartment a lot, it’s a different time schedule from all your friends. You strive for a life of glamor but I’m definitely not there yet.”
Penecale said the communication has been great so far within his new team. There are two other American players, both veterans of the league and most of his Israeli teammates and coaches speak English well enough to get their point across.
When Penecale was talking about his new venture, he hadn’t played in a game yet but felt confident his game would translate well. From what he had seen watching games or experienced in practices, the league is physical and rewards effort.
“From what I can tell, I have decent size and athleticism for this league so I think I can provide some versatility,” Penecale said. “I’m willing to play on-ball or off-ball and guard a guard or forward. I’m still trying to find my role, we’re five games in so I don’t want to screw everything up but I want to have an impact within the team.”
While those all-Ghost summer workouts were as good as it could get locally, Penecale noted they were far from game-level. Once he got in the gym with Hevel Modi’in, Penecale said the coaches were good about understanding his specific situation of having an extended layoff but he still wanted to make a good impression.
“It was a little bit of a roller coaster,” Penecale said. “I had a good practice and thought they were going to sign me, then I’d have a bad practice and waited for them to say ‘sorry, but we don’t think this is a good fit,’ and it was like that for a two-week period. Every day I felt a little more comfortable.”
Living overseas is an adjustment, especially in a pandemic, but Penecale said there are plenty of perks including the weather, which is in the mid-70s right now. He’s enjoying the cultural aspect of it, sampling local foods and hoping to learn some Hebrew.
While the Abington graduate absolutely earned his spot, he’s still the odd man out in a way. His two American teammates are products of Baylor and LSU while the rest are Israeli, so he’s gotten a few quizzical looks when asked where he played previously.
The nice thing is his teammates aren’t judging him on where he came from or how he got there, but what he can do to help them win. That’s something Penecale has done at every stop and what he hopes to do again each time his number is called on half a world away.
“No one knows West Chester,” Penecale said with a laugh. “That was one of the things I was very excited about in trying to pursue this. It’s a big reset in a sense, it doesn’t matter if you came from Duke or a D-II or D-III school, if you’re in this league or a professional in general, you’re all on the same level at this point.
“I’m excited to see how I stack up.”