No one can say Josh Klausman didn't know what he was getting into.
Five years ago Klausman, then an assistant with the Tyrone boys, got a chance to coach against Claysburg-Kimmel in a summer league game.
"It was ugly, ugly, ugly," Klausman said. "The funny part was I had interviewed for the [Claysburg-Kimmel] job the day before. The next day I got the call. So I knew what I was going to get."
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Carter Cerully and his teammates are enjoying a breakthrough season for C-K.
Klausman, though, didn't change his mind about taking the reins of the Bulldogs. That team finished 4-18, and that would be the best record Claysburg posted in Klausman's first four seasons, which isn't that unusual - the Bulldogs won more than that only five times in the previous 15 years and hadn't even been in a handful of postseason games in their history.
Times have changed, though, for the Bulldogs. By beating Glendale last week, the C-K boys clinched their first winning record since the 1973-74 Bulldogs coached by Dick Hoenstine and led by future Cincinnati Red Dave Hoenstine finished 15-10.
"It's honestly truly amazing," said point guard Austin Lamont, one of four current Bulldog seniors who moved up to the varsity as a freshman. "Our parents were probably the last ones to have a winning season. This four-year journey really has been something for us. We're trying to improve day-in and day-out. It's really nice to see our work pay off."
With regular season games left at home against Mount Union and Williamsburg, the Bulldogs are 12-8. They'll also have a District 6 Class A playoff game.
The last time they won double-digit games was in 2002-03. The last time they'd won this many games was in 1982-83 - they won 13 the year before.
"Coming into the season, that was one of our major goals," Klausman said of posting a winning record. "It might not have been a major goal for a lot of people."
Still, for the Bulldogs, it's been like reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
"It's something special, because we've always gone into games just trying our best and hoping we could come out with a win," said senior wing Carter Cerully, who started with Lamont as a freshman. "I'm just so happy to be a part of it."
The thing that stands out most about these Bulldogs is probably that nothing really stands out about them. There's only one player taller than 6-foot-2 - 6-4 sophomore Luke Eberhart. No one averages more than 15.5 points per game, but Lamont, Cerully, Eberhart and Brandon Gergely all are scoring in double figures on a nightly basis, while Tyler Brown checks in at a little more than nine points per game. Eberhart and Cerully get around 10 rebounds per game, and Cody Dugan pulls down about six. Lamont and Brown typically have about five assists and two steals.
The Bulldogs shoot a solid 48 percent from the floor and make three or four 3-pointers per night. A good penetrating team, C-K gets about 10 points per game at the foul line, too.
"We have a lot of unity," Lamont said. "There's been talent in the past. There just hasn't been someone there to put it all together. It's a five-man game. Not any one person can do it. When you have everyone working together, it helps a bunch."
But virtually this same group was 4-18 a year ago and only won three games the season before that. It was looking like just another year for Claysburg when they opened with two losses. After beating West Branch, the Bulldogs dropped their next two to fall to 1-4.
Then, around the holidays, things started to come together.
After getting back on the winning track against Moshannon Valley, the Bulldogs went to Everett's Christmas, where they drew Class AAA Bedford. Despite the difference in the size of the schools, the Bulldogs pulled out a 69-53 win. The next night, they downed West Branch by nine to bring home the championship trophy.
"I think that's the happiest I've been in a while," Cerully said. "You could see it on the guys' faces, just sheer excitement and happiness to be on the team. We celebrated for days."
The Bulldogs had turned a corner. They came back after break to stun Juniata Valley before losing by a point to a Northern Bedford team that had beaten them by 21 a couple of weeks earlier. After a loss at Williamsburg, Claysburg reeled off victories in six of its next seven games.
"That signified to me that we could really do this," Klausman said of the Juniata Valley game. "From that day forward, everything at practice got a little sharper."
Obviously, it wasn't an overnight success. Klausman's first team at Claysburg by his own admission was very physically gifted and gave a lot of effort, but that only translated into four wins. The next year, 40 percent of the starting lineup was freshmen.
It wasn't something Klausman was used to being a part of. He was a winner as a player in multiple sports growing up, then as an assistant coach at Keith and Tyrone. His first day at Claysburg was no doubt an eye-opener.
"I remember my first practice. We had to go over the five spots on the floor, what was the one, what was the two, what was the three," Klausman said. "We had no terminology. We had no fundamental basketball IQ.
"I knew coming in it was going to be a major undertaking and a major challenge. But it was something that you wanted to test yourself."
Getting over the stigma of losing was a big part of that. Claysburg boys basketball had about as big a reputation for losing as any high school program around, and, competing for athletes at a small school was difficult, especially when C-K had so much success in wrestling - Cerully actually started out as a wrestler.
It takes a special group to turn that kind of trend around.
"We knew Claysburg was not a basketball [school] whatsoever," Lamont said. "I would say that's a motivation for us."
Klausman started to realize he might have something when he had to call for a voluntary 6 a.m. workout because the gym wasn't available at any other time.
"I got there," Klausman said, "and I had six kids waiting for me. I knew at that point that I had kids willing to work."
Even then, it was a test of patience and resolve.
"There have been ups and downs. I hate to say it, but, even though I shouldn't, there have been some times I have had a negative outlook on our basketball team," Lamont said. "But, as the years went on, the passion kept growing. That really helped in giving us the confidence to come into this year and make a statement."
They've made a statement to the point that now the Bulldogs go into a lot of games expecting to win, but the target of opposing teams looking to make a statement of their own.
"It's really different," Cerully said. "I've seen us as the underdog going into maybe one or two games."
That's not the only thing Cerully has noticed has changed.
"It's been so nice coming out this year and playing with a crowd. Even away games, we see the same faces night after night, because people are following us. It used to be just the girls games got crowds like that," Cerully said. "It seems like every night, the bleachers are full. There's always underclassmen and even the elementary kids are there. When the whole community is supporting you, it's awesome."
Lamont has been mindful not just about this season but about this team's place in Claysburg athletic history. He's hoping they can be the ones not only to turn it around for a year, but the ones that turned it around forever.
"We'd like sure the Claysburg program can live on with this basketball program," Lamont said.