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Burrell boys basketball team ready for move back to Class AA

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Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell's Matt Hess, the team's top returning scorer, goes up for a layup during a practice on Tuesday.
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Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:38 p.m.

With plenty of senior leadership, athleticism and size, Burrell appears to have the tools to make a successful transition from Class AAA to Class AA boys basketball.

But don't hand the Buccaneers a section plaque yet. Hold the applause and save the pats on the back for later.

“I told them to check their egos at the door,” Burrell third-year coach Rob Niederberger said. “This isn't like football where you have 11 guys. There's only five out there at a time. We have to form chemistry to make this work.”

Burrell went 10-11 last year, including a 4-10, next-to-last mark in Section 1-AAA. But after two years in Class AAA, they're back, arguably, where they belong.

The last time they played in Class AA, in 2009-10, they finished second in Section 1-AA and made their last playoff appearance.

Scenery will change significantly in that same section alongside Apollo-Ridge, Deer Lakes, Ford City, Summit Academy and West Shamokin.

“We don't have any superstars, but we have a lot of guys who are good players,” Niederberger said. “If they can work together, the potential is there for us to do some good things.”

Nine seniors will lead the charge.

“We have a lot of guys who played; some either started or lettered for us,” Niederberger said. “Of the nine seniors, eight have started at some point. We hope to be well-balanced, but we don't have a true go-to guy.”

Burrell probably won't be confused with a finesse team. Enforcers are abound.

Among them are notable football players Matt Hess, a dependable tight end, James Liput, who played quarterback, and star running back Cole Bush, who did not play basketball as a junior.

A swingman, Liput missed time last season with a concussion but should provide leadership in a healthier role.

Hess and Bush are a formidable — and bulky — post pair. Hess is 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Bush is 6-2, 220.

Hess is the team's top returning scorer (11.2 ppg) and rebounder (7 rpg).

Add linemen-turned-forward Nick Nitowski (6-0, 215) to the post rotation, along with 6-3 Ryan Puchak, and the Bucs have a committee-led paint presence.

The backcourt will be led by senior guards Alex White and Pete Spagnolo, a duo who could share time at the point.

Senior 6-0 guard Jake Prefling also should figure in at guard, along with sophomore Joey Cox and junior Mitch Pollino.

Kyle Saylor, a 6-4 senior forward, could make an impact later in the season when he returns from a knee injury.

Burrell was strong defensively last year, tying Section 1-AAA champ Hampton for the section's lowest points-allowed average (48.1). More offensive pop will be needed to improve on the team's 47.6 points-per-game average.

Foreseeing unpolished potential, Niederberger toughened the Bucs' non-section schedule. It includes Central Valley, Quaker Valley and Clairton, as well as a trip to the State College holiday tournament.

“We have a lot fo work in front of us,” Niederberger said. “We're raw, but the ability is there. But we haven't done anything yet.”

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