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Coaching from Heaven

Scott Lang inspired his team, off and on the court.

La Roche College team champions

Scott Lang was a small college coach who had no big-university dreams. For 15 years, Lang was head basketball coach at tiny La Roche College in Pittsburgh. He’d had opportunities to move to bigger schools—including several offers to join the coaching staff at a Division I university—but had turned them all down.

Lang was in love with the close-knit community where he taught. Basketball is basketball, wherever it is played, he believed. As long as he could teach and influence the young men who played for him, he couldn’t ask for more.

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The players who joined Lang’s team came to realize he was as much a life teacher as he was a coach. And it was those off-court lessons he emphasized—accepting responsibility for your actions, comporting yourself in a way that commanded respect—that carried this current La Roche team through a most difficult winter.

During practice on December 10, Lang collapsed near mid-court from a heart attack. He died in a hospital that night. He was 41.

The La Roche team mourned. And then, senior guard and co-captain Laron Mann said, the Redhawks regrouped and started to win. “I realized two games after Coach passed that everything he told us was sinking in, and that this was going to be a special season.”

Those lessons were embedded in Lang’s seemingly endless list of team rules, some of them annoyingly picayune—like having to tuck in your jersey and tie your basketball shoes before being allowed on the court, or having to push in your chair after leaving a restaurant table, and thanking the manager as you exit the door. These bits of discipline were the foundation of an honor code that translated into a determined resolve when the team walked on the court.

Their victories mounted until February 26, when the team faced Penn State-Behrend in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference tournament final. The winner would advance to the NCAA Division III tournament, something no La Roche team had ever done. With one second remaining and La Roche leading by two points, Penn St.-Behrend guard Nick Dvorsky let go a shot. Mann, 5-feet-10, leaped high in the air.

“I’m not the tallest guy,” he said. “But I just felt I had to get a piece of that ball, had to make a play.”

Somehow Mann blocked the shot. The buzzer sounded. Pandemonium overtook the court.

Amidst the celebration, the team gathered at mid-court for a team photo. Just as the photographer was about to snap his camera, someone shouted, “Wait.”

An assistant coach ran to the entranceway of the gymnasium, where a photo of Coach Lang hung. He grabbed it and raced back to the court. The team posed behind it.

“Before the game,” said Harry Jenkins, Lang’s former assistant and now the team’s interim head coach, “it was the players, not the coaches, who were doing most of the talking. They reminded each other of what Coach would have wanted. They willed themselves to make this happen. Coach was with them all the way.”

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