Coach Clement guiding Butler's turnaround
Matt Clement typically travels to Florida this time each year, when major-league pitchers and catchers report for spring training.
Instead, he will travel to Collier Township.
The former major-league pitcher has guided the Butler boys basketball team into the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs during his first season as coach of the Golden Tornado — a positive sign for a program that hasn't had a winning section record in 10 years.
This season, Butler was 8-4.
The next step, Clement said, would be winning a playoff game — something else Butler hasn't done in a decade.
"We haven't won a playoff game at Butler since the 1999-2000 year, so that's a challenge for these guys," said Clement, who spent Wednesday evening in a crowded Coraopolis hotel conference room waiting to see where his team would be seeded.
Butler (16-4), seeded seventh, will play Peters Township (12-9) at 6 p.m. today at Chartiers Valley.
"They brought the program back," Clement said. "Now, the challenge is whether we can get a (playoff) win and add to the script of what these guys have accomplished this year."
For Butler's players, this could be like a feel-good movie: The star athlete returns to his hometown, takes a coaching job at his old high school and the wins start piling up.
Now, they're hoping for a Hollywood ending.
"It has been an exciting time," Clement said, "and I'm very, very excited for my kids."
At one point this season, Butler was positioning itself as a title contender. The team reached Jan. 19 with a 13-0 record and convincing victories over section rivals North Allegheny (62-49) and Central Catholic (58-46).
But Butler's season dipped somewhat during the final three weeks, with the Golden Tornado losing four of their last seven games. Among them were losses to North Allegheny (92-64) and Central Catholic (80-63). Both are on Butler's side of the bracket, seeded second and third, respectively.
Entering the final days of the season, Butler had a slim chance to earn the Section 3-AAAA title. That would have been fantastic, Clement said, but ultimately, he's was content with Butler just making the playoffs.
The Tornado finished third.
"For us to still be in the section race until the last couple days — for us to finish 16-4 — is a tribute to how hard the kids have worked," Clement said. "They're excited for a chance to be in the playoffs right now."
Butler reached the playoffs two seasons ago with a 6-6 section record and lost in the first round. Before that, though, the team had seven consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance.
"We didn't know it was a reality until we clinched a playoff spot," Clement said.
The last time Butler won a playoff game — in 2000 — the Golden Tornado reached the WPIAL championship game before losing to Penn Hills.
Clement won't predict a similar run this season, but he insists he wasn't surprised by his team's sudden success.
"I could tell this summer these kids wanted this," he said. "If you have kids who want it and they're willing to work hard for you, then the sky is the limit."