Two Ways of Driving to the Basket

Two distinct paths took Bashir Mason and Lisa Cermignano to the same place this spring: The VIP room in the Spiro Sports Center. Each one was inaugurated there as a Wagner College head basketball coach, men's and women's, at press conferences held a mere 15 days apart.

By John Beisser / Photo by Dustin Fenstermacher

Mason's appointment at age 28 made him the youngest Division I men's head basketball coach in the nation. Cermignano, 36, traveled a more traditional route to her desired goal, as she notched her way up the coaching ladder, rung by rung and state by state.

Only 10 years ago and 16 miles away, Mason graduated from St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, where he played for the man he has replaced at Wagner, Dan Hurley, now head coach at the University of Rhode Island. Mason moved on to Philadelphia's Drexel University, where he was a four-year starter for the Dragons at point guard and a four-time member of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) All-Defensive Team. After graduation, Mason spent two seasons as an assistant coach at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, before returning to St. Benedict's. He served as an assistant to his former coach there for two seasons, until Hurley brought him along to Wagner in 2010.

While Mason has stayed close to home, Cermignano's move to Wagner represents a return to her roots. Raised in the small town of Mantua Township, some 15 miles south of Philadelphia, Cermignano developed into the 1993 New Jersey High School Player of the Year before going on to enjoy a Hall of Fame playing career down in DC at George Washington.

Cermignano's assistant coaching odyssey, encompassing five college campuses over 14 years, began with one season at Maryland, followed by two seasons at Monmouth. Her next stop was a five-year stint back at her alma mater, where she helped guide the Colonials to a pair of NCAA Sweet 16 appearances. This work led her to Nashville, Tennessee, where she spent three seasons at Vanderbilt, the most academically renowned school in the SEC, one of the nation's power conferences. She then coached for three seasons at Illinois, another academic giant that competes in an elite conference, the Big 10.

The teams Mason and Cermignano take over at Wagner are as disparate as their backgrounds.

Known as an impeccable dresser, Mason arrived at the March 27 press conference resplendent in a charcoal suit. As he strode down the center aisle, the Seahawk players seated in the front row rose as one and began clapping in a salute to their new leader, soon joined by the rest of the audience.

To the players, Mason is a trusted mentor who has helped transform Wagner from a program that won just five games the year before he arrived into one that achieved a school-record 25 victories last season, including a monumental 59–54 defeat of No. 15 Pittsburgh. Mason was particularly instrumental in developing the Seahawk guards into one of the top units in the conference. Murray and Latif Rivers '14 were named to the NEC Second Team, while Kenneth Ortiz '14 garnered Defensive Player of the Year honors.

“We've started something here for the past two years with this team, raising young men and building them to be good student-athletes,” said Mason. “That job isn't done yet. Wagner basketball is here to stay. It is on the rise for many years to come.”

While Mason's charge is to expand on a rapidly built foundation, Cermignano's task is similar to the one the men's coaching staff inherited in 2010. The women's team is coming off nine straight losing seasons, including a 2–27 mark last season.

Cermignano will look to follow the men's blueprint for success, which includes getting the veteran players to buy in to a new vision, while at the same time recruiting talented student-athletes and melding the mix into a cohesive unit. Like Mason, Cermignano is confident.

“I think Wagner College is a beautiful place and a great opportunity for female student-athletes,” Cermignano said. “Everyone I met on my interview, everybody that's a part of Wagner College and Wagner athletics, wants to win and create a winning tradition. And that excites me because that's what I've been about. That's what attracted me when I went to George Washington University as a player and all of my different steps as a coach. To get my first head coaching job back East, near my family, close to all of the people who are important to me, it's like a dream come true.”