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Waites misses out on another recruit

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, April 12, 2002

The surprise early commitment to North Carolina State this past weekend by Clairton's Kamela Gissendanner might have spelled doom for Pitt women's basketball coach Traci Waites, whose inability to recruit western Pennsylvania players has hurt her program.

It could eventually cost Waites her job.

Not only was Gissendanner considered the WPIAL's top prospect, the 6-foot-1 wing-forward also was the Associated Press Small Schools (Class AA-A) Player of the Year after leading the Bears to their second consecutive WPIAL championship.

For the second time this year, Waites wasn't able to lure a prospect who had considerable ties to the university. Last fall, it was Schenley's Carmen Bruce, whose father, Kirk, was Waites' predecessor and is now an assistant athletic director at Pitt. Carmen opted instead for Big East Conference rival Georgetown over the Panthers. This time, it was Gissendanner, whose cousin, Darrell, played point guard at Pitt in the early 1980s.

Western Pa. has been a hotbed for girls basketball for decades, producing greats like Suzie McConnell Serio and Edna Campbell, who would go on to play in the WNBA. Pitt, however, has never had a stronghold on the WPIAL or City League. The Panthers have gotten by with the occasional Jennifer Bruce Scott in the '80s and Jonna (Huemrich) Burke in the ‘90s, but they have missed more WPIAL and City stars than they've signed.

McKeesport's Swin Cash (Connecticut), Schenley's Cindy Dallas (Illinois), Oakland Catholic's Katie Bulger (West Virginia) and North Allegheny's Jessica Brungo, Steel Valley's Jess Strom and West Mifflin's Tanisha Wright (Penn State) are among those who have opted to sign elsewhere in the past five years.

Pitt has only two WPIAL players — albeit good ones in East Allegheny's Brooke Stewart and Oakland Catholic's Amy Kunich — on its roster. That's pretty unbelievable, especially with the reputation the WPIAL has for producing Division-I girls basketball players. How are the Panthers supposed to win without a strong local base?

Consider that Cash led UConn to the NCAA women's championship and was MVP of the Final Four this spring. By contrast, Pitt missed the postseason for the third time in four years. Not that Waites had much of a chance at Cash, anyway, but Cash is the kind of player that Pitt needs to make an NCAA run, the kind of player that can lure others.

Gissendanner has drawn comparisons to Cash.

Waites' last hope for landing a meaningful, program-changing recruit from the WPIAL in her next recruiting class lies with Oakland Catholic junior Meg Bulger. It's already a slim hope, considering that Pitt paid for bypassing Bulger's older brother, St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc, when he was at Central Catholic by losing her sister Katie, who chose to follow him and play basketball at West Virginia, where she is one of the Big East's top scorers.

Meg is a major talent, perhaps moreso than Katie. The 5-11 guard averaged 20.7 points, 4.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game as a junior to lead the Eagles to the PIAA championship game for the third time, where they have won once.

Meg Bulger has yet to show that she can carry a team on her back the way Gissendanner has at Clairton, but Bulger is playing at a higher level and classification (Class AAAA to Class A) and against better competition, which makes such comparisons unfair. But that leads to this question: Will Bulger want to carry the burden of saving Pitt's women's basketball program?

Waites better hope so.

Where Walt Harris has returned the Pitt football program to the good graces of schools in its backyard, he has been blasted for failing to sign the highest-rated WPIAL linemen year after year. Where Ben Howland has restored the Pitt basketball program to becoming worthy of a top-25 ranking and NCAA Tournament bid, he, too, has withstood criticism for not being able to sign locals such as Blackhawk's Brandon Fuss-Cheatham.

Now it's time for Waites to face the fire.

The opening of the Petersen Events Center should work in her favor, but attendance at Pitt's women's games was sparse, and Waites is going to find out how cavernous a 12,500-seat arena will be if the Panthers continue their losing ways.

The pressure is on, and Waites must do something to salvage her recruiting.

And her job.

Kevin Gorman's Recruiting2Day column appears Fridays in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He can be reached at (412) 320-7812 or by e-mail at kgorman@tribweb.com

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