KARNS CITY, Pa. (EYT/D9) — LeeAnn (Gibson) Conto slams a large pad into the back of the post players during a Karns City girls basketball practice.
The players have affectionately named the pad, “Paula.” They have become quite acquainted with Paula, for better or for worse, because Conto is merciless.
It’s her way of toughening up the bigs for a grueling season in the paint. Conto would know how hard things can be inside during a long campaign. She starred for the Gremlins for four years in the post, grinding out more than 1,400 points, then moved on to Slippery Rock University where she joined The Rock’s 500-500 club: 500 career points and 500 career rebounds.
Now she’s an assistant coach with the Gremlins under Steve Andreassi.
“Steve actually called me and he was like, ‘Hey, I know you’re busy with nursing school, but I think you could help us out this year,’” Conto said. “‘The girls really want you to help.’”
How could she say no to that? In reality, she was itching to get back involved in the game. Conto last laced up her basketball sneakers at SRU in the winter of 2020 and was missing the sport.
Conto took all of about two seconds to say yes.
The decision was made easier by the fact Conto was wrapping up her nursing degree near the start of the season. She took her last exam at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., the day before the tipoff to the campaign. She had her nursing pinning ceremony Dec. 11.
All that is left for Conto is to pass her boards.
In the meantime, basketball has become one of her passions again.
Conto knows the girls on the team well. Her cousins, Lyrik Reed and Maddy Gibson, were on the soccer team at Karns City with many of the current basketball players and Conto was a mainstay in the stands during the season.
“I got to see a lot of these girls play different sports,” Conto said. “I went to all of their soccer games, so I got to see (forward Rossi McMillen) play goalie and just be with them through their different sporting events.”
And they players know her well, too.
Some of them were old enough to see Conto — then LeeAnn Gibson — dominate for Karns City teams that went on to win three District 9 crowns.
Conto was a two-time all-state selection. She also excelled at other sports. She was a standout softball player for four years and also fared well on the track and on the volleyball court.
Conto isn’t afraid to mix it up in practice — with “Paula the Pad” or no “Paula the Pad.”
“When I’m in the post with them, they’re always like, ‘Oh, no.’ They get kind of timid,” Conto said. “We have fun with it. When I airball a 3-pointer in practice, they let me know about it, though.”
Conto relished her time at The Rock.
She was a different kind player there at the Division II level. She was a grinder and played an important role for a program that was rebuilding under coach Bobby McGraw.
“It was exciting, just knowing I could go and play D-II college basketball,” Conto said. “Then be a three-year captain and do pretty well there. I was really excited to make the 500-500 club. That was a huge deal to me. I couldn’t be more excited to end my chapter there and kind of get into the coaching chapter, I guess you could say, here with these girls.”
Conto left SRU with 675 points and 532 rebounds. She ranks fourth all-time at The Rock with 205 offensive rebounds.
Conto admitted it is still difficult for her to not want to run out onto the court and play instead of staying on the sideline to coach.
That itch is still there.
“It’s totally different,” Conto said, laughing. “There’s times where I catch myself wanting to shoot the ball in practice when we’re doing drills.”
Conto said she learned a lot from her coaches over the years — namely Dave Kerschbaumer at Karns City and McGraw at SRU.
“I think the biggest thing is just to be a positive influence on the girls,” Conto said. “I’m a female coach, not too much different in age than them, so it’s a different dynamic. A lot of them come to me about school stuff and outside stuff and I try to be a good role model for them and give them good advice. There’s so many girls on this team who have great potential and they just need to use it. They just need to be encouraged to do it.”
Conto said she sees a lot of similarities between this current Karns City team and the one she was on just before the Gremlins made those three D9 championship runs.
That excites her. It also brings the memories flooding back in.
“It could be a great year for us,” Conto said. We have a lot of seniors who have a lot of experience. We have a lot of freshmen coming up who are unbelievably athletic. It’s going to be very exciting to see what they can accomplish.
“The girls were in the locker room singing and dancing and it just gave me flashbacks to us before games,” Conto added. “That’s what we were like before games.”
Conto was a young player on a team of veterans who had gone through some lean years before breaking through. She sees the same seeds of future success on this team, too.
If she can help that along, she’s all in. So is “Paula the Pad,” which she yields without mercy.
“A lot of these seniors started off at the bottom. They started off with some rough years,” Conto said. “Now they can make a serious run. At the first practice, the seniors were talking about that to the younger girls. They were telling them they had been at the other end of this, getting their butts kicked and now they wanted to kick other people’s butts. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”