West Xtra: Bridgers are enjoying a turnaround

Craig Meyer's High School Basketball Notebook

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When Mark Jula walked into a situation many would view as bleak, he saw some signs of promise.

It was 2012 and he was taking over an Ambridge boys' basketball program that had been struggling mightily, having gone a combined 5-37 over the two previous seasons.

An Ambridge graduate, Jula had seen what success looked like at that school with WPIAL and state championships in 1967, when he was in junior high, and a WPIAL runner-up finish in 1970, a team he played for. Sure, the team and program didn't represent what it once did, but Jula saw that there was at least the potential for change.

"Certainly they weren't winning, but when I walked in, there was a lot of young talent," Jula said. "I think what we tried to establish was a winning attitude, a hardworking ethic and bringing back a pride in the program."

Not even a season and a half into Jula's tenure, the early results are encouraging. After a 14-9 finish in 2012-13, the Bridgers are 7-3 after their first 10 games this season, a run that has featured the sort of highlights that would have been hard to imagine less than two years ago.

First, they won three of their four games at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas in mid-December and about a week later, they defeated one of the WPIAL's top teams in Chartiers Valley, albeit without Colts star guard Matty McConnell.

For a program that lost its final 10 games of the 2011-12 season, the progress has been remarkable.

"If you look at a year and a half ago, the last game Ambridge played they lost to West Allegheny by about 40," Jula said. "In that time, you went from a drubbing to beating the best team in the WPIAL and winning three in Las Vegas. That's some monumental growth."

Though Jula's impact on the program has been tremendous, his players have obviously had a large role in the team's success. Junior guard Stephon McGinnis is averaging a team-high 18.3 points per game and 6-foot-4 junior Daylon Carter is close behind with 17.3 points per game. Along with those notable contribution comes youth, as the team starts three juniors and a freshman, meaning that these achievements could be sustainable.

Ambridge has lofty expectations after a WPIAL playoff appearance last season, as the team hopes for a longer run in the postseason this time around. But, regardless of how things finish, the program has come a long way in a short time.

"The first thing you try to do is get them to understand what the best teams in this league think of you," Jula said. "If they don't think you're tough and they don't think you're a winner, they're not going to respect you. I think we've changed that."

Cougars on dominant run

With four of their top five scorers back from a team that finished 27-2 last season, the Blackhawk girls' basketball team was widely considered to be among a handful of elite squads in the WPIAL this season.

Thus far, the Cougars have been surpassing even the loftiest of expectations. At 10-0, not only are they the lone undefeated team remaining in Class AAA, but with the help of standout scorers such as Chassidy Omogrosso, Courtney Vannoy, Bridgette Shaffer and Halle Denman, they beat their first 10 opponents by an average of 36.9 points while scoring 74.3 points per game -- both of which are the best marks in the WPIAL.

Chargers rebounding well

After finishing 19-5 last season, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart girls' basketball team lost its first four games of the season while its offense struggled to produce, averaging just 36.8 points per game.

Since then, however, the Chargers have turned things around, as they've won five of their past six. Most impressively, this run is being done with a relatively young team -- 10 of the Chargers' 15 players are freshmen or sophomores.

Weekly watch

Chartiers Valley at South Fayette, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. -- With McConnell (appendectomy) back, Chartiers Valley (8-1, 4-0 Class AAA Section 5) rebounded from its first loss by rolling to a 15-point win against Montour last Friday. McConnell scored 32 points and is averaging 22.5 for the season. South Fayette (6-1, 3-0) is beginning to jell as some of its players who played on the school's PIAA football championship team are rounding into form.

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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