‘She is toughness.’ Penn State women’s basketball forward making impact after year off

During the 2020-21 Penn State women’s basketball season, Johnasia Cash made a name for herself on and off the court.

The forward was All-Big Ten Second Team selection by the media and averaged 13.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. On Jan. 31, 2021, Cash scored a career-high 28 points with 12 rebounds and three steals against Purdue and finished with four consecutive double-double games with 27 points and 19 rebounds against Nebraska in the following game on Feb. 4.

Prior to the season, she was the leading voice — quite literally — for the team’s stand against racism after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, when she penned a song and sang to raise awareness during a State College rally.

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But the next year was different for the McKeesport native. She took a year off during the 2021-22 season to take aim at her academics and to put her mental health at the forefront of her personal growth. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, not being able to take in campus life fully and enjoy herself as a student, Cash just needed a break.

This summer, Cash had an internship with Nittany Valley Sports Centre, where she continued to take in new knowledge of her field of recreation, park and tourism management. In her downtime, she kept up her skills in late-night pickup basketball games at the facility.

Sean Kader, the director of operations and food services at Nittany Valley Sports Centre, was her internship supervisor and said she “brought a lot of energy to the building,” and enjoyed going on field trips with the camp-goers.

“Cash,” as Kader and the other workers called her, was constantly busy balancing school, returning to the court and participating in her internship.

“Cash was our first Division student-athlete intern other than some club level players that we had in the past,” Kader said. “We definitely had numerous conversations throughout the internship about how much she had to focus on time management between being an active student-athlete and working a full-time internship at the same time. She was able to accomplish this, but it provided fairly long days for her on a consistent basis.”

She received her degree in December 2021 and is working on a master’s in a completely different field.

“I graduated in December with my bachelor’s in RPTM (recreation, park and tourism management) and a minor in musical theater,” Cash said on media day on Oct. 19. “Currently, I am in the graduate program for homeland security… I’m thinking about getting it under my belt, but it’s been a really interesting subject and a very interesting journey in grad school and I’m learning new stuff every single day. So, who knows what I’ll learn from here.”

How Cash took over for the 2022-23 season

Cash spent time during the summer crafting her game and focusing on dominating for the upcoming season. The rebounding forward played pickup games against former collegiate men’s basketball players and recreational players alike.

She dominated the paint, of course.

Then, it was time to step back onto the court with her teammates. Everything looked different in the Bryce Jordan Center on Oct. 19’s media day. She had slew of new teammates, a more experienced roster and high expectations for the team.

“It’s super exciting to be back here in the BJC back here with my teammates,” Cash said. “The team is so much different — I only know three of the players that returned. It’s a completely different environment and new everything. I’m loving it.”

Leilani Kapinus, along with Makenna Marisa and Anna Camden, were teammates who returned to court with Cash in the 2022-23 season. Kapinus saw Cash’s infectious enthusiasm toward rebounding and playing physical defense in practice during her freshman season in 2020-21.

Although Kapinus was sidelined for the entire season and had to take a medical redshirt in her freshman year, she’s excited to finally be able to build off of the chemistry that she had with Cash and their kindred fervor for wreaking havoc on the glass as the top rebounders on the team.

“(She’s) extremely important,” Kapinus said. “Obviously, Cash averaged a double-double when she played two years ago. So, grabbing those boards and getting us those second-chance shots is big. She’s always talking in practice — she’s juiced. Her energy is unmatched. She will definitely help us offensively and defensively.”

Cash has already made her presence felt as a rebounder, providing totals of 11, 12 and 10 against Bryant (Nov. 18), Syracuse (Nov. 11) and Toledo (Nov. 25) — all wins for Penn State. She averages a team-high 6.2 rebounds and is a tough defender with averages of 1.2 steals and .6 blocks per game.

She’s just what the doctor ordered for head coach Carolyn Kieger’s squad.

“We can be tough and really disrupt people and dictate them on the defensive end and finish the rebound battle, which is what we missed last year,” Kieger said during media day. “She’s heart. She is toughness. That’s what she brings. She’s contagious when she’s on the floor, especially from a rebounding and defensive mentality.”

Penn State’s Johnasia Cash looks to the basket around Virginia’s Camryn Taylor during the game on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.
Penn State’s Johnasia Cash looks to the basket around Virginia’s Camryn Taylor during the game on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.