West Xtra: Ambridge wins summer basketball league championship

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The Ambridge Area boys varsity basketball team has improved in each of the two seasons since Mark Jula took over the head coaching position.

If Ambridge's performance at the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Summer League is any indication, the Bridgers look poised to run their improvement streak to three years this upcoming school year.

Ambridge went 10-2 in the summer league, including a perfect 4-0 in the playoffs to capture the big schools (Class AAAA/AAA) title last week.

"Most summer work is individualized," Jula said. "It's about the players getting better individually. But this gave us an opportunity to experience game situations as a team and get better as a team.

"Now we can use July to have the players get better individually."

It's taken Jula just two seasons to turn Ambridge back into a force to be reckoned with in WPIAL Class AAA.

The Bridgers won just five of their 42 games during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, leading to Ambridge hiring Jula, who has previously coached at WPIAL schools Moon Area, Butler Area, North Allegheny and Center.

Jula currently is sitting on 498 career wins.

Ambridge went 14-9 in Jula's first season winning a preliminary-round WPIAL playoff game. This past season, the Bridgers won 17 games again winning its preliminary-round postseason game before falling to Uniontown.

But this upcoming season looks like it could be special for the Bridgers. They return six lettermen, led by WPIAL Class AAA Section 2 player of the year Stephon McGinnis. A 5-foot-7 point guard, he averaged 20.1 points per game last season. He has been the Bridgers' most impressive player this summer, too.

"He's played like an MVP all summer," Jula said. "He's had the best summer of anyone I've ever coached. He works hard and just loves getting better."

He also has plenty of talent surrounding him. Daylon Carter, a 6-foot-4 swingman, was an all-section selection after averaging 20.4 points per game. He finished second to McGinnis in all-section voting by the conference's coaches.

Additionally, rising sophomore Roman Shell and rising senior Tyler Hendon return after both seeing time in the starting lineup last season. Jula said Hendon, a 6-foot-3 forward, is the most improved player he has seen in his time as coach.

"In all my years coaching, he's made the biggest improvement from 10th to 12th grade," Jula said. "When I took the job, we probably had 20 guys there that first day and he was the worst guy in the gym. He went from that to starting a year and a half later and now he's even better."

Jula also got key contributions this summer from returning letterman Tre Parker, a rising senior and rising junior guard Darius Lawrence as the Bridgers dispatched of Canon-McMillan, New Castle, Lincoln Park and West Middlesex in the playoffs.

"We might be the first team to beat two defending state champions on back-to-back nights," Jula said of his team's wins against 2014 PIAA Class AAAA champion New Castle and PIAA Class A champion Lincoln Park.

But the Ambridge coach knows his team can't rest on its laurels, especially with how difficult its section could be this winter. Defending WPIAL Class AAA champion Central Valley, which was perfect in Class AAA Section 2 last season, should once again be strong.

Additionally, New Castle is dropping from Class AAAA and will join the section, while perennial power Beaver Falls is moving up from Class AA. Add in Blackhawk, which finished one game ahead of the Bridgers in the league last season, and it will be tough to just make the postseason.

"We have to keep getting better," Jula said. "Our section is going to be difficult, and if we stop improving, we'll be in trouble."

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