Burrell football team had memorable campaign in 1982
Burrell had gone 14 years without a WPIAL football playoff berth heading into the 1982 season.
But the Bucs ended the drought in a big way, winning the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference and making it to the WPIAL semifinals before losing to eventual champion Steel Valley.
Burrell finished 7-0-1 in conference play and 9-2-1 overall.
According to coach Bernie Storer, the seed to the '82 run was planted in the last game of the 1980 season, when Burrell upset Valley, 7-6, on the final play of the game.
“We were looking to turn an era around where we wanted to develop a history and tradition,” Storer said.
Burrell did well in 1981, finishing 6-4 and remaining in the playoff hunt until late in the season.
Expectations were high going into the '82 campaign, with 14 starters returning, including Tom Brown, one of the state's top college recruits.
But the start of the season didn't go according to the script. Burrell dropped an 11-0 decision to Derry in the opener.
Burrell eked out a 17-14 victory over Penn-Trafford in Week 2, thanks to a 25-yard field goal by Brown with four seconds left in the game.
Besides that, quarterback Tom Ulizio, who had passed for 908 yards in 1981 and threw just four interceptions, broke his ankle trying to recover a fumble.
In stepped converted wide receiver Jim Slater, and the Bucs went without a loss over the next nine games.
“Starting the following Sunday, I got a crash course in quarterbacking,” Slater said. “I was nervous at first, but Tommy Ulizio on the bench really settled me down.”
A 40-6 victory over Hampton was followed by the easiest win of the season; Churchill forfeited to the Bucs because of a teachers strike in the new Woodland Hills School District.
In one of the most exciting games of the season, Burrell played Kittanning to a 21-21 stalemate. That game featured two future NFL players: Brown and Kittanning's Mitch Frerotte.
“We had played against each other in youth football and basketball when we were 10,” Brown recalled. “And we played against each other in the NFL when I was with the Dolphins and he was with the Bills.”
Burrell then defeated North Catholic (14-6), Swissvale (29-16) and Knoch (14-13), setting up a chance to clinch the conference at Franklin Regional.
Burrell ran a quarterback keeper to start each game with Slater.
“We wanted Jim to get a hit and get into the flow of the game,” Storer said.
But the play worked so well, Burrell kept running it, even though other teams knew it was coming.
Slater opened the game with a 55-yard keeper against Franklin Regional, and the Bucs were on their way to a 10-7 conference clincher.
Burrell then prepared for the season finale at home against Valley.
Intrigue was a factor leading up to the showdown after two Valley junior varsity coaches were caught in the woods near the Burrell practice field spying on the Bucs.
But the skullduggery didn't help, as the Bucs posted a 30-20 victory behind Brown's 145 yards rushing and Slater's two pass interceptions.
“That Valley game was memorable; it was a fun time for us,” Slater said. “Then I built up a friendship with Valley quarterback Mike White.”
Playoff time arrived for the Bucs and Brown, who was the focus of a feature on KDKA-TV's “Evening Magazine” show in a story about the college recruiting process and Western Pennsylvania high school football tradition.
Brown ran for a 55-yard touchdown, his 16th of the season, and Slater intercepted two more passes as Burrell knocked off Greensburg Central Catholic in a home playoff game, 21-7.
“We owed our season to Jim,” Storer said.
But it all came to an end the following week in the WPIAL semifinals at Gateway High School.
Two turnovers deep in Steel Valley territory allowed the Ironmen to emerge with a 14-0 victory.
After the game, Storer and Slater went over to the Steel Valley locker room and congratulated coach George Novak and the Ironmen, who won the WPIAL crown against Aliquippa the following week.
“We had a lot of good players, and it was the end of Bernie's effort with Burrell,” Brown said. “The team reflected the kind of guy Bernie was.”
Storer left Burrell after the season because the school didn't have a full-time job for him. He is now retired and living in Churchill.
Brown, after five NFL seasons, lives in Seven Fields and runs a company supplying cosmetics and other items to places like Whole Foods.
Slater is a logistics manager with Trib Total Media in West Deer.
And Novak is still winning championships at Woodland Hills High School.
George Guido is a Valley News Dispatch scholastic sports correspondent. His column appears Wednesdays.