By the end of last February, things looked bleak for the Ambridge basketball team.
After going 5-37 the past two seasons, the Bridgers' head coach, Joe Falletta, quit while Ambridge's best player, Malik Walker, left the school and started taking classes at Lincoln Park.
But a change in his father's schedule brought Walker back to Ambridge by the end of the 2011-12 school year, and he is hoping to lead the Bridgers (7-5, 3-3 in Class AAA Section 2) back to the playoffs.
"I'm pretty happy he came back," Ambridge first-year coach Mark Jula said. "He's a three-year letterman and arguably one of the better players in the league."
Walker said his decision to return to Ambridge came after his father started taking night classes for engineering school. With a younger sister to look after, Walker wanted to go to school closer to home. He said he is happy with his decision to return.
"I am very happy because this is where all my friends are," Walker said.
It doesn't hurt that Walker also likes Jula, who graduated from Ambridge in 1971. Jula entered the season with more than 450 career wins and previously coached at WPIAL schools Moon Area, Butler Area, North Allegheny and Center.
"He's more upbeat with the players," Walker said. "He knows we can be better players and he encourages us to play at that level."
Jula has sped up the pace of Ambridge's offense, which has played into the hands of this athletic senior. Jula has also worked with his 6-foot-5, 220-pound forward on his play in the post. Walker mostly has been a face-up player in his high school career, but Jula wanted him to expand his game.
"He can shoot the ball -- I think he had two or three 3-pointers in our game last Friday -- and he can put it on the floor," Jula said. "But I wanted to start posting him up and have him use his body. He has the ability to 'out-quick' anybody in the post and now he can score in a variety of ways."
After scoring 15 points per game last season, Walker is averaging 18.7 points through 12 games this season. He was also averaging in double figures in rebounds and usually defends the opposition's top scorer.
His all-around play has gotten the attention of a few colleges, as Penn State Beaver and Penn State Behrend have been attending his recent games.
Walker said he wants to play at the college level, but first wants to play in his first high school playoff game.
The Bridgers haven't qualified for the WPIAL playoffs since 2009.
"I'm really going to enjoy [making the playoffs]," Walker said. "It's something I'm really looking forward to."