Team effort, senior leadership, has fueled Burrell's charge to title game
Burrell doesn't have pure basketball players, per se. There are no 1,000-point scorers or high-level college recruits.
This group is more like a band of athletes who chisel themselves into basketball shape and send their other sports into hibernation for the winter.
But that hasn't stopped the Buccaneers (18-6), with their nine seniors, from reaching the WPIAL Class AA championship game, set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Palumbo Center.
The team will lean on senior leadership — among other things, like its usual physical play and strong defense — in what appears to be a daunting title-game encounter with defending champion Beaver Falls (22-3).
Burrell hasn't had the luxury of playing for hardwood hardware in 34 years.
“Our guys are willing to put in the work,” Burrell coach Rob Niederberger said. “You can't tell me there's another team in the Valley that spends more time in the gym than we do.
“You have to demand more than the next coach. If you don't demand it, they won't put in the time.”
Burrell's seniors don't usually woo anyone with highlight-reel plays. They're fundamental and methodical on both ends of the court and force opponents to work for points.
The hard-hats-and-lunch-pail approach has gotten them this far and has worked in other sports. Playoff experience in other sports, no doubt, has played a part in this scintillating run.
An all-state linebacker and dominant running back in football, forward Cole Bush has proven his worth on the court, particularly down the stretch and in big games. Bush had 16 points and 18 rebounds against Quaker Valley. He could be the enforcer the Bucs need against a fast-paced Beaver Falls team that is a regular when it comes to competing this deep in the postseason.
Bush, a St. Francis (Pa.) football recruit, did not play basketball for the past couple of years. Burrell fans don't want to think about life without their bruising post player.
“We all got together and talked him into playing again,” senior guard Alex White said. “He has helped us get to where we are.”
White and senior guard Pete Spagnolo have been to the WPIAL soccer playoffs but haven't gone half as far as the basketball team.
They have gone from kicking goals in soccer to achieving them in basketball.
Senior forward Matt Hess has championship experience. He was a freshman when Burrell won the state rugby title.
“This experience has an equal feeling,” said Hess, who also was a standout tight end and linebacker. “We're a hard-nosed group that plays good defense. It doesn't have to look good. A win is a win.”
Senior reserve guard James Liput was the quarterback of the football team, which, like the basketball team, shared a section title. The football Bucs, though, lost in the first round to Mt. Pleasant.
“We're tight-knit,” Liput said. “We have great chemistry. We don't have many basketball gym rats, but we find a way to play together.”
Liput has battled concussions. He was a starter in basketball as a sophomore and missed his junior season. He's found comfort in a dirty-work role. But the championship medals look the same for starters and backups.
“It's amazing to be in this position,” Liput said. “You love to be in a WPIAL championship, no matter what sport.”
Aside from its scary pressure defense, Beaver Falls also relies on senior talent.
The Tigers graduated arguably the WPIAL's best player in 6-foot-7 Sheldon Jeter, now a starter at Vanderbilt. But several key players returned from a 28-3 team, including senior guards Elijah Cottrill and Drew Cook, both averaging 16 points. Cook is a four-year starter, Cottrill (6-2) a three-year starter.
“Sometimes you can become too dependent on a marquee player,” Beaver Falls coach Doug Biega said earlier this season. “Now we're more of a team than we were last year. Last year, there was a star and a supporting cast. This year, there's all supporting cast.”
Biega is aiming for his 300th career win Saturday. That would give him three WPIAL titles in 14 seasons.
“It would be cool to get your 300th win and a WPIAL title on the same day but in the opposite order,” Biega said.
Another senior guard for Beaver Falls is Cadee Akins, another defensive sparkplug for the Tigers.
“If we press them, we can beat them,” Akins said. “They have some good big guys, but I have faith in my big guys, too.”
Akins said his first time at Palumbo was awe-inspiring, and he anticipates Burrell will have the same feeling.
“It's a big stage; you have to be ready for what comes with it,” he said.
Beaver Falls takes a 12-game winning streak into the championship.
Burrell will try to do what very few teams have been able to do this season: slow down the Tigers.
“It'll be a complete clash of styles,” Niederberger said.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.