Kosanovich, Cleary share Coach of the Year honor

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 1:41 a.m.

The Serra Catholic and Elizabeth Forward girls basketball teams enjoyed similar seasons.

Both schools have junior-laden squads that were thought to be a year away from making a run to a title; both played eight deep from the bench; and they relied on a stifling defense and transition game to get fastbreak baskets.

Oh, and both finished with identical 24-4 records, ended up playing for a WPIAL title at Palumbo Center and won first-round games in the state playoffs.

It would have been difficult to pick one coach as the 2013 Daily News Girls Basketball Coach of the Year, so Serra Catholic's Bill Cleary and Elizabeth Forward's Sam Kosanovich will share the honor.

For Cleary, this year was something of a renaissance. He won his 500th career game at the end of the 2011-12 season. Serra Catholic had not played in the title game since losing to Monessen in 2006, which was also the last time the Eagles had won a state playoff game.

Instead of settling into what could have been a tune-up for a playoff run in 2014, Cleary did one of the best coaching jobs of his career. He got the most out of an inexperienced group and took them into the Class A title game, where they lost, 53-46, to a Vincentian team defending its title.

“I think it was just the players that really came together, and they really played well together,” Cleary said. “I saw that early on in the summer that it was a unique group that had talent but was very unselfish. They didn't worry about the scoring averages. They just wanted to play well.”

Kosanovich had the same kind of impact at Elizabeth Forward. Only two players averaged in double figures, as the Warriors bought into a team-first mentality.

“It was probably a mixed bag of what we were going against defensively and what we had to do offensively, and these players, when they had an opportunity, they took advantage of it and made the most of it,” Kosanovich said. “I can honestly say that it was a different one every game, and they knew coming in that it was going to be our philosophy.”

Three different players led the Warriors in scoring in their three WPIAL Class AAA playoff victories. Using that template, Elizabeth Forward ended quite a few droughts: It qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA championship game for the first time since 1977 and played for its first title since losing to Penn Hills in Class AAAA in 1990.

In addition, the Warriors also won their first state playoff game when they defeated Central Valley in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament at Baldwin.

“They deserve all the credit because the players are the ones that have to go out there and keep the streaks going and make a statement to the other team,” Kosanovich said. “As far as my accomplishment in that, I just hope that I had a positive influence on them, both on and off the court, but 100 percent of the credit goes to the players because they have to go out and play the game.”

Both coaches also have the same problem: expectations. Now that both have played in a championship game with young teams, they will be frontrunners to get there again — and win it — next season.

“Being down there, it was special day, and we hope to build on that,” Cleary said. “It was great getting to the state tournament and seeing what the level of talent is. Now, we know where we have to go and what we have to do to get there.”

Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kbarnes@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KBarnes_Trib.

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