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La Roche women revel in winning tradition

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 4:09 p.m.
La Roche senior Casie Cygan is second in the team's all-time scoring list.
La Roche athletics
La Roche senior Casie Cygan is second in the team's all-time scoring list.

La Roche women's basketball coach Kam Gissendanner has faced some of the biggest names in her sport, players such as Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker.

She refuses, however, to fill in during any scrimmages with her Redhawks.

“Heck, no!” said Gissendanner, a Clairton and Penn State graduate who played with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks in 2008 and practiced against Leslie and Parker. “I am retired, and I take pride in saying that.

“I'm giving these girls all that I have as a coach, and If I'm out there being competitive, I don't think I'm giving them much.”

Senior guard Casie Cygan has a different opinion.

“We feel like she's scared of playing against us,” Cygan said with a laugh.

Gissendanner rarely brags about a career that included 2,703 points and two WPIAL titles at Clairton, third-team All-Big Ten honors at Penn State as well as a professional stint overseas, but ...

“She makes comments here and there,” Cygan said. “Sometimes she'll be like, ‘Watch my highlight video on YouTube.' ”

Gissendanner's transition to coaching has gone smoothly since she took over the program last season. The Redhawks are 9-2 this season as they seek a fourth consecutive Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title and fourth straight berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament.

“They want to be the best,” Gissendanner said. “I don't think they take it lightly wearing La Roche on the front of their shirts. They know wearing that uniform means winning. This is a program whose rich tradition is based off winning and winning the right way: getting those gutty wins and playing all-up-in-your-shorts defense.”

La Roche's maniacal, full-court pressing style is one of the chief reasons it has stood alone atop the AMCC. The Redhawks have won 54 of their past 58 conference games and average 18 steals per game this season. Freshman swing player Danasha Harris (Uniontown) leads the team and ranks fourth in the nation with 4.8 steals per game, while junior swing player LaShauna Brothers (New Castle) averages 2.8.

“We love getting the other team bottled up,” said Brothers, who also averages 13.9 points and 6.7 rebounds.

Offensively, the go-to player is Cygan, a 5-foot-5 Butler graduate who averages 16.4 points and recently became the school's second all-time leading scorer. She trails Chantelle Jennings by 279.

“Casie is a scorer,” Gissendanner said. “Whatever way she can find to score, she's going to find it. Every team needs that player you can rely on night in and night out to score, and she's been that.”

La Roche's dominance of the AMCC, though, hasn't translated to NCAA Tournament success. The Redhawks have dropped their NCAA opener the past three years.

Last season, La Roche went 24-2 in the regular season but drew the top-ranked team in the nation, DePauw, in the first round and lost 73-43. Gissendanner called that seeding “disheartening.”

“We're (typically) a very small team,” said Cygan, who has only two teammates taller than 5-7 this season. “Size-wise when we get to the tournament, we struggle a lot. We're just as quick as the teams we play. They're just bigger and stronger than we are.”

The Redhawks are coming off two nonconference losses. They won their first nine games by an average 24.6 points but fell to Waynesburg and nationally ranked NAIA team Point Park last week.

La Roche is off until Jan. 11, giving Gissendanner plenty of time to prepare her team for the rest of the AMCC schedule — even if she won't be suiting up.

“I think (winning the conference again) is a big deal,” she said. “Some of these girls, all they know is winning. We want to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.”

Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.

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