THE COME UP: 2017-18 a testament that Wildcats Basketball is a growing program

Senior guard Matthew Storeman (4) of Central Mountain High School shoots the ball during a regular season high school boy’s basketball game. The Wildcats finished the season with a record of 12-11 -- much better than priginal expectations. (The Express/Tim Weight)

MILL HALL — Check the record and you will likely see ordinary, mediocre, average.

Dig a little deeper and you will notice that perhaps a play or shot here or there, and things could have been considerably different.

The Central Mountain High School Wildcats Boy’s Basketball team finished the 2017-2018 season with a 12-11 record under first year head coach Tyler Bardo. Bardo inherited a program that was coming off of its first ever district championship in school history.

Having lost six seniors from the championship team, Bardo knew that he would need a few returning players to step up and lead while some younger guys developed. Surely there were some, perhaps many, who would have figured the season to be a complete rebuild for the Wildcats.

Not so.

The Wildcats were very competitive throughout the season even in their losses. Specifically, nine of the team’s 11 losses were by seven points or less. Included in that was a one-point loss at Tyrone, a two-point loss in the Heartland Conference Tournament semifinals to Danville, and a four-point loss at Williamsport.

Only once was the team involved in what could even remotely been considered a blowout, and that was a home loss to Loyalsock. However, even in that contest, the score was not indicative of the competitive nature of the game.

Anyone who followed the Wildcats throughout the season would surely say that at worst they were entertaining, and more often than not were much better than that. This team could score the ball. This team could get after opponents on the defensive end. A pressing and running style of play was on display.

So when I asked Coach Bardo what he would say to someone who characterized his first season as ordinary, mediocre, average, he said “They are entitled to their opinion. Probably from the outside looking in, they are right. However, unless you’re there everyday and understand the program over the last few years, you don’t understand. When you look at a new coaching staff, a new system and new starters, we far exceeded what most people thought we could do.”

Personally, I feel that is a very fair assessment. Bardo and his staff did a great job of getting the most out of their team.

On the season, the team scored 1,461 points…good for 63.5 points per game. Defensively, they surrendered 1,296, which was 56.3 per game. From an individual standpoint, junior Collin Jones, who averaged 18.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, led the Wildcats.

He was followed by senior Matthew Storeman who scored 12.1 points per game while also dishing out 3.9 assists per game.

Other notable scorers for the Wildcats were seniors, Trevor Hanna with 10.4 ppg and Izzy McCann with 9.8 ppg. Junior guard Jake Skrtich came off the bench all season to lead the team in three-point shots made with 28. Hanna was close behind with 24.

Those were just some of the numbers posted by this year’s team, but I wanted to get inside the numbers for a closer look at what went right and what went wrong for the Wildcats in 2017-2018.

Recently, I sat down with Coach Bardo to get his take. I asked the coach for a general characterization of the season and he said it was, “a season that had a lot of unknowns at the beginning. An entirely new coaching staff, a basically new varsity team with the amount of seniors that got time last year. I think early on in the season, the kids bought into what we wanted to do, and very quickly any doubt was erased whether or not we could still produce a quality basketball team. A lot of guys were literally growing up before your eyes not only as basketball players, but also as young guys who were responsible for leading a team. That’s a position that they hadn’t been in prior to that.”

Coach Bardo feels that his team’s greatest strength was their athleticism. However, he quickly pointed out that “something probably greater was the player’s willingness to want to learn more.”

On the flip side, he said that his team’s greatest weakness was “depth, because while you’re trying to get time for your bench to develop, we had starters who were last season’s bench. Our lack of depth was due to having four new starters then also trying to develop guys behind them.”

That weakness is one that Coach Bardo feels was strengthened over the course of the season, but it took time. Certainly there is going to be this type of problem for a team when it loses as much playing time and production from the previous season as this team had seen occur.

To be sure, it wasn’t just the players who were learning and developing in new roles. Rather, it was the head coach himself as well as his staff that were learning and developing.

Bardo said that what he most learned in his first season as head coach was, “It’s not just basketball anymore. I guess I did know that going in. There’s the administrative stuff that you can’t prepare for. You can prepare in terms of making a phone call to past or current head coaches trying to get a look ahead at what’s coming, but you can’t prepare for that. On the court, it was nice because basketball was still basketball whether you’re an assistant coach, JV or head coach. The single biggest thing I learned however was to trust your players. I think it is important that you empower them and let them speak, because at the end of the day, they are the ones out there playing the game.”

It is often normal to close a season and have people immediately begin to look toward the future. As a coach, I didn’t like it. However, as a reporter, well, it’s part of the job.

With that in mind, I sought the coach’s thoughts on his junior high and JV programs to attempt to measure whether or not he was comfortable with where the basketball program as a whole is headed. Despite the fact that the younger teams in the program struggled with wins and losses this season, he feels that is just a small part of the big picture.

Along those lines he said, “I don’t think you can look at junior high and JV records and say that this is what you can expect in the future. You want to win and be competitive at those levels, but the bigger picture is whether or not you are developing in the areas that you need to develop, and I think that we did that. Across the board, kids found that there is so much more to basketball than throwing the ball out and playing or getting it to one or two kids, especially in the system that we want to play in. The system requires a lot of skill and I’m comfortable that kids began developing those skills.”

My final question for the coach centered on what he and his team will focus on in the offseason.

He said, “Skills. We are going to do our skill development things in the spring, summer and fall. I want us to play, but our game play is going to focus on specific things. While we want to be competitive and feel that we will be competitive in the offseason, we have to develop different aspects of our game. Once again we are graduating four starters, same as last year, so we’re looking to develop some of those guys on the bench into starters, who they will be remains to be seen.”

Bardo made it clear that he wants his players to understand that getting to big games is not the goal. Rather, he wants them to expect to win those games. What became clear to me was that Bardo was proud of his team’s efforts and accomplishments this year.

However, at the same time, he knows that work needs to be done to keep the Central Mountain Basketball program relevant. He wants to win. He expects to win. He hopes that feeling is contagious and his younger players catch the fever and work to continue to move the program forward.

Having both coached and mentored Bardo, I can honestly say that his passion for the game is off the charts. That being said, he will not be outworked. He loves to teach the fundamentals of the game. If players want to work, they will have the opportunity to get better. The off-season becomes about them. The round ball will be squarely in their court.

What they do with it is a decision that they will all make. Those decisions will largely determine where the program goes in the future as well.