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Burrell in unfamiliar spot with playoffs approaching

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 1:56 a.m.
Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell's Nik Artman delivers a pitch against Deer Lakes during a game Wednesday, April 3, 2013, at Burrell High School.

Senior pitcher Nik Artman can give three good reasons why he believes Burrell's baseball playoff streak will remain intact.

The first he frames — like a fastball on the outside corner — in one word.

“Pride,” Artman said. “That's the biggest thing. In Little League, we never lost to these teams. I still believe, athletically, we're the best team in our section.”

Strike one.

“Me and Zack Abel and the other seniors have talked,” Artman said. “We don't want to be that class that didn't make the playoffs.”

Strike two.

“And coach (Mark) Spohn has never not been to the playoffs,” Artman said.

Strike three. Burrell's not out — yet.

With three Section 3-AA games remaining, Burrell is facing an unfamiliar plight. Normally in a comfortable position in the standings at this time of year, many times the prohibitive front-runner, the Bucs are scratching for their 16th straight postseason berth.

The top three teams in each section qualify. Only section-leading Deer Lakes (12-2, 9-0) had secured a spot heading into Friday.

Burrell is 5-4 in section, tied for third with Ford City (5-5, 5-4).

Apollo-Ridge remains in contention at 3-5. Freeport is in second place at 7-2.

“We still have a chance,” Spohn said. “But we have to run the table.”

Burrell has been a model of consistency in Alle-Kiski Valley baseball for more than a decade. The Buccaneers have made the WPIAL playoffs every season since Spohn took over in 1998. Seven of those trips ended in the first round, but Burrell has been to the PIAA (2001, ‘08) and WPIAL (2010) championship games.

“It's been a struggle at times (this year),” Spohn said. “It's one of those off years. We're a little down, but it's tough to put your finger on what the problem is.”

After a three-game skid, the Bucs have rebounded with three straight wins, the key one being a 3-2, 9-inning win over Ford City on Thursday.

The Bucs swept the season series against Ford City, which could be important if tiebreakers come into play.

“Huge. That game was absolutely huge,” Spohn said. “We told the kids before the game that it was pretty much a playoff game for us.”

Ford City pitcher Justin Retzer struck out 16 batters, but Burrell scraped together enough offense to beat the Sabers' ace.

“There's always been a target on our backs,” Artman said. “That shows the respect teams have for us. Even when we're not playing good, we still face people's aces.”

Burrell started the season 0-3 and took time to find momentum.

“We didn't get a lot of reps early on to progress,” Spohn said. “We had a bad start. We had to replace some key people and we didn't catch any breaks.”

Burrell is now 5-7.

Spohn's teams have never finished with fewer than 10 wins in a season.

“Hopefully, we'll prepare better and get better,” Spohn said.

Most Burrell teams are known for being rowdy and blitzing opponents with constant noise. This year's group isn't altogether quiet, but it's different.

“This is the most laid-back team I've been on here, and this is my third year,” said Artman, who has been on teams that reached No. 1 in the rankings, and this year's, which dropped to last place during one stretch. “This team is very different. The seniors don't put pressure on the younger kids.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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