La Roche carries on after death
Magical season continued as ‘basketball became our outlet’
As a special season was beginning to take shape for La Roche College, coach Scott Lang was in the gym on a December afternoon running his basketball team through another practice, something he had so many times before during his career.
His team, riding the high of a six-game win streak, was preparing for its contest against Alleghany Mountain Collegiate Conference opponent Penn State-Behrend.
There were no signs that a tragedy was on the horizon.
By the end of the day, the looming showdown had a meaningless feel to it. Lang, who had been the head coach at the school since 1997, collapsed and died at practice. He was dead at age 41 from heart failure.
“It was shocking,” senior guard Laron Mann said. “I didn’t want to believe it was happening. I thought coach would pull through. Nothing had ever held him back before. I couldn’t believe it when I found out he died.”
It was a moment that could have changed everything. The Redhawks could easily have struggled to stay focused because of Lang's death and that would have put the special season in jeopardy.
Senior guard Nate Wojciechowski said he and his teammates were determined to not let that happen.
So in the face of extreme adversity, in the face of something that would have provided the players with a reason to hang their heads and be overwhelmed by their pain, the team rose up and kept pushing forward.
In their first game back, eight days after the untimely death of Lang, Wojciechowski scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds has he led the Redhawks to a 75-60 victory, extending a win streak that would later reach 17 games.
“The way we looked at it was that it made us closer as a team,” Wojciechowski said. “It was tough not having him around, but basketball became our outlet. It became a release for us.”
From day one of this season, Lang believed La Roche could put together a season to remember. Interim head coach Harry Jenkins, a retired teacher who has been on the coaching staff for three years, talked about the vision of greatness Lang had for his team.
“Scott talked about us being successful and having a special season,” Jenkins said. “I had never heard [him] talk so much about it before and he really felt like we could win a conference championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament. As we started to win, you started to believe it was possible.”
Two days before the death of Lang, La Roche drilled Pitt-Greensburg 71-48, extending its win streak to six games and providing the team with another shot of confidence.
It was the last time Lang would see his team play a game. Although he had been dealing with heart problems, Lang had changed the routine in his life to keep himself in good health and told Jenkins he felt as good as he had in a long time.
Going forward was the hard part after Lang passed away.
“It took time to get focused on basketball again,” Jenkins said. “We tried not to talk about it as much as we went through the season, but everyone was thinking of coach Lang. They knew what goals he wanted us to accomplish and we wanted to achieve them. LeRon and Nate became the torchbearers of the program and led us through the rest of the year.”
La Roche would lose only once in the regular season after the death of Lang, setting the stage for a run at the conference tournament championship.
The Redhawks knocked off Hilbert 86-69 in the semifinal round and faced Penn State-Behrend in the championship on the basketball court that is named in honor of Lang.
Emotions were running high, especially with La Roche knowing it was so close to making Lang’s dream of a championship come true, and the game was a battle from start to finish.
La Roche held a 30-27 advantage at halftime but neither team could build a lead bigger than six points in the second half. It came down to the Redhawks making one big play to seal the deal.
PSU-B's Nick Dvorsky shot a long two-pointer with one second remaining, but Mann elevated and swatted it away, giving La Roche its first conference title and first ever berth to the NCAA Division III tournament.
“A lot was running through my mind after the game,” Mann said. “I just kept saying ‘We did it coach Lang, we did it.’ It was bittersweet to win the conference title because we all wished coach could have been there with us to celebrate. But I know he was there watching over us.”
The NCAA tourney experience would only last one game. The Redhawks, who had never won more than 15 games in a season, lost 74-68 to Wittenberg in the opening round. Their season ended with 25 wins and three losses.
“We came into the season unranked and were expected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the league,” Jenkins said. “To be able to accomplish what we did is big for the program. It was an amazing adventure and we owe it to coach Lang. He never expected less than the best from his team.”
Jenkins isn’t sure what direction the program will take next season in terms of a head coach, but what Jenkins does know is that he will never let the memory of Lang fade away.
“He was a very demanding coach but he was also a very caring person,” Jenkins said. “He was a great guide for the players. I learned so much from him and enjoyed having a chance to coach with him.”
Wojciechowski shared similar thoughts on a coach who helped make his senior season one to remember.
“I feel so blessed that I was able to play for coach Lang,” Wojciechowski said. “He taught me so much and I feel like I am a better person and player because he was in my life.”