Carlynton girls basketball returning to glory
Walk into the gymnasium at Carlynton, and you will see history.
Banners celebrating the school's past athletic accomplishments — including the last team title won by the Cougars — hang high above the hardwood from rafters.
It was in 2003-04 when the girls basketball team defeated Freeport, 42-20, to win the WPIAL Class AA title — the first and only title for the program.
A decade later, the Carlynton girls basketball team is returning to prominence.
“Our motto for the last two seasons has been ‘return to glory,' ” Carlynton coach Tim Bonner said. “You look at the numbers on the banner, and you realize how successful the program has been and how dormant it was for a bit. We want to focus on bringing the glory back to the program.”
The Cougars are off to a 4-0 start — only the second time that has happened since the banner season — and are looking to keep the wins coming.
After making the playoffs in 2004-05 during Bonner's first tenure as coach, the program began a tailspin that saw six coaching changes in eight seasons. The constant turnover led to five losing seasons, including a low of two wins in 2009-10.
Bonner returned as coach last season after serving in the position from 2004-05. In his first season back, the team qualified for its first WPIAL playoff appearance and recorded its first playoff win in eight seasons.
“The whole school was supporting us,” senior center Jazmyn Meredith said. “It felt great because it hadn't happened in so long.”
Having a coaching staff return for a second consecutive season is a privilege the Cougars haven't had in recent years. Instead of learning a system, the players are perfecting it.
“We are so much further ahead than we were last season,” senior guard Hannah Murray said. “Even in the summer, we knew what they expected from us and how hard we needed to work.”
“We had to adjust to different plays and styles of coaching with all those coaches,” Meredith added. “Now we can be consistent in how we play.”
Qualifying for the playoffs and getting a postseason win in Bonner's first season helped get a monkey off the team's back. The team had winning records in 2010-11 and 2011-12 but failed to qualify for the postseason due to struggles in section play.
“It made them hungry,” Bonner said. “It left a nice taste in their mouths. But when we lost in the next game, they got that bitter taste because we didn't want it to end.
“When the season was over, we weren't happy because we wanted to keep going.”
The team has only two seniors on the roster — Meredith and Murray. They have been a constant presence in the Carlynton lineup since their freshman season. The team also returns junior Jordan Melko, a major contributor to the team's success last season.
The biggest return may be junior Conor Richardson. The team's scoring leader with 20.3 points per game this season, the Division I prospect missed the 2012-13 season with a knee injury.
“You have no idea how hard it was,” Richardson said of watching the season from the bench. “I was so proud of what they accomplished.”
Sophomore Abby Greiner — a 5-foot-9 forward — has stepped up to fill the starting five.
“Our chemistry is really good,” Melko said. “We are all around the same size, too. We can handle what comes at us, and there isn't a bad match up.”
The team still is developing. Bonner said the team is waiting on its underclassmen — 10 are listed on the roster — to step up and contribute at the varsity level.
“Like any small-school team, we have to worry about depth,” Bonner said. “Staying healthy and foul trouble will be concerns. We think we have a solid starting five. We just are waiting on some of the younger girls to step up.”
And when some of the youngsters do, it will add to a determined team that is looking to hang another banner from the rafters.
It is a confidence the program hasn't seen in recent years.
“We want to take this season one step at a time,” Richardson said. “First, we want to get wins in the section and be the section champs. Then, we want to go through WPIALs and make it to the Palumbo Center and play in front of all those people. Then we want to move on to states.”
The Cougars will travel to undefeated Beaver tonight, Thursday, in a Section 6-AA battle. Tipoff is set for 7:30.