Carlynton girls basketball ends playoff drought
The Carlynton girls basketball team has been wandering through a desert of uncertainty the past eight years. The team experienced six coaching changes as it sometimes struggled to find wins and missed the playoffs each season.
The Lady Cougars have finally quenched their thirst as the team by claiming their first playoff berth since the 2004-05 season.
“It is a weight off of our shoulders,” senior guard Amanda Dodd said. “Finally, after all these years, we are in the playoffs. We are helping to change the program.”
“It is exhilarating,” senior forward Rose Doyle added. “None of us have been to the playoffs. It is great.”
Carlynton downed Freedom, 48-37, on the road last week in a Section 6-AA battle to claim the spot. The Lady Bulldogs needed the win to keep their hopes alive, but the stifling Lady Cougars defense gave up only six points in the second and third quarters.
“We knew they were in desperation mode,” Carlynton coach Tim Bonner said. “I am so proud of our kids. It was a tough situation going there. It was a white out, and everyone had white T-shirts on. There was a big crowd, and they came ready to play. We didn't let anything bother us, and the kids did awesome and exactly what we planned.”
Carlynton added a 47-36 nonsection win over Cornell last week. The wins moved Carlynton to 6-5 in Section 6-AA action and 11-8 overall.
Bonner — who coached the Lady Cougars from 2004-06 and led the team to its last playoff berth — came into his first season ready to lead a team struggling to find an identity. The three seniors on the team — Dodd, Doyle and forward Lejla Isak — had a different coach leading the team every year they were at Carlynton.
Instead of being panicked about the coaching change, the players were relieved when they learned Bonner was selected to coach the team. He had a familiarity with the current program having been an assistant coach during Cayll Smith's lone season in 2010-11.
“His knowledge of the game is so vast,” Doyle said. “We have the confidence that he knows what he is doing. We listen and execute like he says, because we know it will work.”
The calling card of the Lady Cougars has been their defense. The team has been holding opponents to an average of 31.9 points — fifth-best in the WPIAL's Class AA. It is an improvement of more than 16 points as Carlynton gave up more than 48 points per game a season ago.
Bonner said coming in to the season his staff looked at its personnel and figured focusing on the defense would give his squad the best chance of winning.
“We knew we had to have smart kids to run this defense,” Bonner said. “We have a thinking defense. They need to identify sets and communicate. And we have good overall size. Our smallest girl is about (5-foot-7), and our tallest is only 5-10, but everyone falls in between there. And we have some tough kids. Carlynton has a history of that.”
The tough-player claim was proven true when Isak had her nose broken in a game against Beaver last month. The senior finished the game and has played in every game since despite having surgery to fix the damage.
The offense slowly has been coming around; it has struggled to find consistency but has had bursts. The Lady Cougars are 9-0 when they break 40 points, with six of those games coming in the 2013 portion of the schedule.
“We have had our ups and down,” Bonner said. “The offense is not as consistent as the defense, but we're getting there. Early in the season, it was hard for us to score 30. We recently have been in the 40s. The offense is slowly catching up.”
The Lady Cougars' offense has been boosted by the play of junior Hannah Murray and sophomore Jordan Melko. The duo has cracked the starting lineup and improved its game, according to the seniors.
“They have really stepped up,” Doyle said. “I am really proud of how hard they worked. They got a starting role and ran with it.”
Carlynton has shown a clear improvement since the first game of the year. In December, the Lady Cougars fell to Avonworth, 44-32, but downed the Lady Antelopes, 48-25, in the second game of the series. Against Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Carlynton fell, 47-24, in the first game before giving one of Class AA's top teams a scare with a 26-21 battle.
“I have been fortunate to have kids who listen in practice and follow the game plan,” Bonner said. “We brought our system in, and they did what we asked. Everyone knows great players make great coaches.”
With only a handful of games left in the regular season, the Lady Cougars have their sights locked on the postseason. Bonner said he is trying to get the team to understand any team it faces will be tough, and there are no easy games in the playoffs. The players said they are ready to make the most of the experience.
“Everyone is behind this,” Dodd said. “The school is excited. It is a big thing, because it has been eight years.”
It is a new experience for the team. The three seniors were in fourth grade the last time Carlynton was in the postseason.
While many may not have given Carlynton a shot to get to this point, its coach had faith they would.
“I told the kids coming in we have lofty goals,” Bonner said. “And I believed we could make the playoffs. I really did. I told them I have been doing this long enough and know not to lie to my team. If I say I want to do this, this and this, I believe it. Because if you don't believe it and get your butts kicked, they will think, ‘What was he thinking?'
“I thought we had enough experience to make the playoffs. I am really proud of this team.”
Carlynton has its final section game of the year tonight, Thursday, as it hosts Sto-Rox. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-388-5813.