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Burrell boys basketball prepping for season with lots of changes

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 10:18 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell boys basketball coach Shawn Bennis keeps an eye on players during practice Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, at Burrell.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell's Joey Cox lines up a shot during basketball practice at Burrell High School on Tuesday, November 19, 2013.

Last year, Burrell made it to Palumbo Center for the WPIAL Class AA championship game. This year, the Bucs just hope to be in the playoff chase.

Sweeping changes have hit the program, from heavy graduation losses to a brand-new coaching staff — unique circumstances for any program.

But new coach Shawn Bennis said the plan is to rebuild with a deliberate and patient approach.

“I came here to try and build a program,” Bennis said. “I have a son and daughter in the district, so I plan to be here a while. I want a sustainable program, and I am committed to making that happen.”

Bennis took over the youth program after the resignation of long-time organizer Butch Liput, and added a K-thru-2 level.

“You look at the wrestling program here,” Bennis said. “They have had amazing success, and it started with the lower levels. Those guys are the aggressors when they wrestle. That's what we want to be. We have 18, 19 kids making up our varsity and JVs. And they've been working their tails off.”

Last season was a whirlwind of unexpected thrills for Bucs fans. The team created a buzz that hadn't been heard since the late 1970s.

For as fast as it all came, it ended even quicker. Coach Rob Niederberger resigned less than a month after the season ended, following a loss to high-powered Beaver Falls in the WPIAL finals and one round in the state playoffs.

Bennis took over and began picking up the pieces. The Bucs lost nine seniors, all of whom contributed, from low-block enforcers Cole Bush and Matt Hess, to sound guards Pete Spagnolo and Alex White.

The player with the most returning experience is junior guard Joey Cox, who exhibited some clutch 3-point shooting down the stretch last season. He likely will be joined in the backcourt by senior Tom Spagnolo and sophomore Brendon Lettrich, among others.

Senior Cody Wolfe, the quarterback of the football team, also could contribute, along with senior Shawn Lamberton.

Three freshman could see time: Max Garda, Nick Kotecki and 6-foot-4 Drake Thompson. Garda has shown a knack for ball-handling and shooting.

Bennis plans to implement the dribble-drive offense he used at Highlands when he went 38-33 and coached WPIAL 3-point record-holder Micah Mason.

“In our non-section games I want to work to put a system in,” Bennis said. “In the section games, we're going to do what it takes to give us the best chance to win.”

Niederberger's stamp on the defensive side of the ball will remain.

“We'll still have Rob's touch on defense,” Bennis said. “We're going to play hard.”

Bennis expects a rotation that can go as many as 10 deep.

“I feel like I am starting to be myself more,” Bennis said. “I feel I am gaining the players' trust. They're doing everything I ask of them.”

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

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