West Xtra: Good times make return at Carlynton

Craig Meyer's High School Basketball Notebook

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Tim Bonner knew what the moment felt like, the moment when he helped lead a team to a section championship. For him, it came in 2005 with a Carlynton girls' basketball team that finished 16-10, claimed a share of the Class AA Section 3 championship and advanced to the quarterfinals of the WPIAL playoffs.

At Carlynton, that kind of success has a fleeting feel to it, as the program gradually regressed.

But in 2012, on the heels of a 12-10 season, it was searching for a new coach and the school knew just where to turn for that vacancy -- Bonner, who had retired after the 2005-06 season.

With that change has come success.

Now in his second season of his second stint at the school, Bonner has led Carlynton to an 18-3 record for the regular season, a mark which has helped it win its first section title since he was last at the school.

"We've been able to put together a nice little run," Bonner said. "It's worked out well for us. I'm really proud of my girls."

Following a brief two-year tenure as the school's head coach from 2004-06, Bonner ventured into retirement. And for a while, he figured it would stay that way.

But after the 2011-12 season, he was beginning to ponder a return, this time as an assistant coach with the Carlynton boys basketball team. It was a position he felt comfortable taking -- that was until he got an exploratory phone call from the school's athletic director offering him the head coaching job with the girls' team.

"The rest is history," Bonner said.

He inherited a Cougars program that had bottomed out, going 47-108 from the 2005-06 season through 2011-12, a period in which it never made the playoffs. Despite that underwhelming record, there were signs of progress in the final two years of that span, as Carlynton went 12-10 in each of those seasons.

Immediately hoping to build on that positive momentum, Bonner helped lead the Cougars to the playoffs that season with a 13-11 record, accomplishing the goal they set out for at the beginning of the season. But heading into this current season, they had greater expectations -- namely, that elusive section championship.

That feat has since been reached, with Conor Richardson more than partially to thank. A junior guard/forward, she is averaging 20.9 points per game, ranking her 12th among WPIAL girls players in the most recently compiled statistics, and has been the catalyst of an offense averaging a section-best 54.6 points per game.

While Richardson has had help from a strong supporting cast -- a group that includes junior forward Jordan Melko and freshman guard Ashleigh Wilson -- her impact on the game, and her team's success, has been undeniable.

"She has a lot of good players around her, but she does so many things on both ends of the floor," Bonner said. "She's the kind of player who can make the impact play of the game on both offense and defense."

Heading into the playoffs for just the second time in the past nine seasons, the Cougars are on something of a tear, having won 11 of their past 12 games. Whether that recent run will translate to the playoffs is another question entirely, but one thing is becoming clear -- they are playing their best basketball of the season.

"We've shown signs of being a very, very good basketball team," Bonner said. "We're looking for that real balance where our offense and defense are real consistent for four quarters. We think it's coming."

A historic low

While this time of year is a popular one for many to bemoan the sheer quantity of teams that advance to the WPIAL playoffs, there will be a noticeably lower number of losing teams in the field this season.

Of all the girls and boys basketball teams that have made the WPIAL playoffs, 21 have records below .500. That number may seem high to some, but it is actually the lowest it has been since the 2004-05 season. Of those 21 teams, only one of them (the Freedom girls) are from the West Xtra coverage area.

New heights for Bridgers

The Ambridge boys' basketball team qualified for the WPIAL playoffs last season for the first time since 2009, but this season, it has taken yet another stride.

Entering the playoffs, the Bridgers are 16-6, marking their best regular-season winning percentage since 1980.

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

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