La Roche women's basketball again aiming for NCAA tournament
Six months into her tenure as a first-time head coach, Clairton native Kamela Gissendanner has some advice.
“You're never ready to be a head coach,” she said, “until you've been a head coach.”
Apparently, Gissendanner was born ready. At least if early success is any indication.
The La Roche College women's team completed its regular season 22-2 and won the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference regular-season title with a 17-1 record. The Redhawks will be the No. 1 seed in the AMCC tournament, which begins Tuesday.
All this despite not accepting the position until mid-August. And being only 27 years old. And having a significantly short-handed roster compared to her team's rivals.
“Most teams that are successful, they have a 12- to 15-man roster. We've been doing this with seven or eight girls game in and game out, which is pretty unheard of,” Gissendanner said. “So that's why it's been a little difficult for us.
“I'm happy but not satisfied yet. That's how I feel right now. We have a lot to look forward to still.”
La Roche's roster size — because of recruiting — was affected by the late coaching change. The Redhawks also have lost players since preseason practice began for a variety of reasons.
But being undermanned hasn't meant being uncompetitive.
“We're very happy with the way this season's gone,” said guard/forward Amanda Garland, a Woodland Hills graduate. “It's a lot different from years past when we'd have almost 20 girls, but that's meant in practice we're moving the whole time. And so when it comes to the game, nobody gets tired.”
Gissendanner took over the Redhawks program after serving as an assistant at St. Francis (Pa.) from 2009-11. That followed a playing career that included professional stops with the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA and pro teams in Norway and Slovakia.
She also was a decorated player in high school and in college at Penn State.
That depth and breadth of experience doesn't always translate into head coaching success. But, in the case of Gissendanner, the early returns suggest otherwise.
“She's a lot of fun,” Garland said. “There's a lot of bonding on the team that goes on because of her, and we relate to her well.
“She doesn't accept failure. As the coach, she wants everybody to know she's not going to let up on us. She always expects the best from us.”
Gissendanner expects the best out of herself and her program. Take her philosophy on recruiting at the NCAA Division III school: “We want to have good players who are recognized not only regionally but nationally. And that is honestly my goal for the program, year in and year out.”
“We're trying to recruit heavily,” she said. “We'll have a couple surprise guests on our roster next year whom people will enjoy watching them play.”
The Redhawks have that kind of talent already this year, including three players from the Mon Valley. A junior guard/forward, Garland is tied for third in scoring (11.7 points per game) and is second in rebounds (4.8).
Junior forward Jessica Pitts, a West Mifflin graduate and Duquesne native, is second in points (15.2) and the team leader in rebounds (11.0) and assists (5.6). Steel Valley alumnus Leslie McPherson, a junior guard, is second on the team in assists (4.0) and averages 7.7 points per contest.
Add in talents such as junior Casie Cygan and sophomore LaShauna Brothers, and Gissendanner is thinking big in how she wants to cap her inaugural season.
“At La Roche, they're used to being good,” Gissendanner said. “So this isn't anything new for them. Obviously the past two years they've gotten to the NCAA tournament.
“Our goal is to make a lot more noise this year once we actually get into the tournament.”
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.