West Xtra: Central Valley's landmark season comes to a close

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With his team a game away from playing for the state championship, Brandon Ambrose had already seen what the Central Valley boys' basketball program could accomplish.

But on Monday, walking into the school's gym, he saw the sort of impact that his team has made this season, the kind that perhaps even he hadn't anticipated.

Ambrose was doing a workout with a group of seventh, eighth and ninth graders getting ready for AAU ball and was surprised to see about 30 of them in the gym. To him, that unusually large turnout happened for a reason.

"That says a lot about the way they're inspired by what the older kids are doing," Ambrose said. "Typically, you don't have that type of attendance in the offseason and already, you've got young kids ready to play because they watch these guys. They want to be a part of it and hope that someday, that might be them."

The Warriors' season came to an end Tuesday with a 42-31 loss to Susquehanna Township in the PIAA Class AAA semifinals in Altoona. That setback, however, came after a good deal of success.

Playing for a school in just its fourth year of existence, they won a program-record 25 games, captured their first WPIAL basketball championship and showed just what can be done at the school.

"These guys accomplished more this last year more than my community -- I went to Center -- accomplished in 50 years as a school," Ambrose said after his team's loss Tuesday. "It's something amazing. They have a lot to be proud of. They're down, they're hurting [after the loss].

"You look at the whole season and what they accomplished. I don't think anybody expected us to be here and it's not that we're satisfied this is as far as we got, but I told them in the locker room that when your results exceed what your talent is -- or at least match your ultimate talent, which I think we did -- you've had a great year. It took us as far as we could go until we ran into these guys."

The 2013-14 season represented a sharp spike in success for a program that was previously on a more linear track of improvement. After going 14-9 in its inaugural season, Central Valley finished 16-11 in 2011-12 before amassing a 16-7 record last year.

It didn't take long for the team to figure out that this campaign would be a little different. The Warriors won 14 of their first 15 games, eight of which came against Section 2 opponents.

Even though they lost four games this season, none of those came to district teams at the Class AAA level. Two were to the WPIAL Class AAAA finalists -- New Castle and Hampton -- while the third and fourth were to Obama Academy, a City League school, and Susquehanna Township, which is located near Harrisburg.

Of course, the crowning accomplishment in that span was a thrilling double-overtime victory against Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL championship game. For a school that had previously never gotten further than the WPIAL quarterfinals or the PIAA first round, it was a notable achievement.

"We've continued to win more games and this has been clearly the best season we've had," Ambrose said. "We won a WPIAL championship which, where we're from, means a lot to us and that was a wonderful accomplishment."

Given all that success, though, there will come departures. Four of the Warriors' five starters -- guard Jacob St. George, the team's leading scorer, guard Michael Sims, guard/forward Tony Gates and center Matt Kline -- were seniors, meaning there will be a certain level of rebuilding next season.

But there's optimism in that process, at least as far as Ambrose sees it. There will be some building that will need to be done and thanks to that group of departing players, that task may end up churning out even more positive results.

"This senior class laid a foundation for a program that I think is going to take off," Ambrose said. "It's all because of them."

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

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