By Hannah Nelson, Features Contributor
Taking control of a program that has amassed a 26–69 record over the last five years would be called a challenge by most, but first-year Canisius women’s basketball head coach Sahar Nusseibeh has a unique way of looking at challenges. She explained, “The way I see it, challenges can either intimidate or motivate, and if you’re intimidated by something then how can you expect to be successful?” A graduate of American University, Nusseibeh played in 116 games for the Eagles; after earning a spot on the all-rookie team after the 2005-06 season, her teams made the first two postseason tournament appearances in program history. After 12 successful years as an assistant coach at the Division 1 level, and after the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association named her as one of their “Thirty Under 30” honorees in 2016, it’s clear to see that Nusseibeh is no stranger to hard work and — consequently — no stranger to success.
However, she doesn’t live in the successes of her past, and this refusal to live in any moment but the present sets up the framework for the first two out of six words she wants her team to live by: Feet In. “Feet In is all about being fully committed with two feet into whatever you are doing wherever you are,” she explained. “And the other component is being present; being where your feet are. We can’t be worrying about what was or what’s going to happen next because the moment of what actually is is the only timeframe that our girls, and our staff, has any control over.”
Led by sophomore guard Dani Haskell offensively and freshman Rhay Porter defensively, the Griffs recently gave conference-leading Fairfield all they could handle in an overtime thriller. They had lost to that same team by more than 30 points just three weeks prior. “Obviously, we want to win and that is always the goal, but a big theme in our gym is looking at whether we progressed and found ways to be better than we were before,” said Nusseibeh. Nine of the team’s 17 losses have been by 10 points or less, and for what the team lacks in stature they make up for with heart and hustle. The puzzle pieces are there and the rest of the MAAC is becoming aware that they are dangerously close to clicking into place.
While underclassmen have found impressive success playing big roles on this team, their ability to perform is credited to the staff’s positive practice environment intent on teaching, and a dedicated senior class intent on leading by example and performing. Any rules or standards Nusseibeh sets for her players, she and her staff also follow, in order to set the foundation for the second piece of their team’s identity: Arms Out. “Arms Out is about servant leadership first and foremost. Seeking ways to help others is a big passion of our staff, … whether it’s within our team and we’re helping a fallen teammate, or whether it’s on campus and we see someone drop their books or struggle to get something done, it’s offering a hand where a hand is needed. A big part of the culture of this program is living out our team values outside the KAC, outside the team, so that anyone in the KAC, on campus or in the Buffalo community can tell who plays for the Canisius women’s basketball team,” said Nusseibeh.
Nusseibeh’s coaching style and the environment that she creates around it are intentionally built — they’re crafted so that she and her staff can dare her players to grow and pursue greatness. Her demeanor, language and the standards she expects her players to live by all feed back to what Nusseibeh believes her actual job is: the part that extends beyond the court. To the first-year head coach, on-court success pales in comparison to the primary responsibility she feels a coach has to develop young players into the strongest, most confident versions of themselves so that greatness may follow them for the rest of their lives. This rounds out the last facet of her team’s culture: Eyes Up. “Eyes Up sums up the respect that we expect the girls to give each other, and that they know we will give them. Making eye contact not only shows people you respect them but it establishes your presence, and as a female head coach that values the great group of girls that I have here, my greatest passion is developing these women to be the strongest women they can be.”
Feet In, Arms Out, Eyes Up: the DNA of this 2021-22 squad. The level of pride Nusseibeh has in her team and the level of effort her players give in the pursuit of greatness bodes well for the future of this program. There’s a new era of women’s basketball at Canisius, and with Nusseibeh at the helm, success is sure to follow.