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Burrell softball team relies on fundamentals

| Monday, May 6, 2013, 12:26 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Deer Lakes Maureen Hutchinson (right) is called out at second base as Burrell's Becca Wilhelm (left) attempts to complete a double play in girls softball action Monday at Deer Lakes High School April 15, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Burrell pitcher Claire Fisher on the mound against Deer Lakes, Monday April 15, 2013 at Deer Lakes High School.

The double play went 5-2-3 — just like Burrell drew it up.

“We work a lot on defensive situations and try to be prepared for them,” said junior catcher Jaila Manga, who was part of the twin killing against Hampton last Wednesday. “We actually practiced that (double play), so we were ready for it.”

Burrell plays in Section 3-AA, which is top heavy with teams that thrive on base-clearing hits and big innings. First-place Deer Lakes and third-place Freeport — Burrell is sandwiched in between — are two of the top run-producing teams in the WPIAL.

But the Buccaneers win in a different way. They can churn out the runs, too, but they take much more pride in their defensive handiwork behind go-to pitcher Claire Fisher.

While some teams are busy swinging away, Burrell is playing dump-and-chase and working to preserve shutouts. The Bucs have done so five times this season.

And a zero in the error column also contributes to a good day's work.

“We don't have the power people,” Burrell coach Mike Spagnolo said. “We want to be a good, solid defensive team and rely on our baserunning and speed. You can't count on hitting all the time. Maybe you make things happen with a walk. We work a lot on our running and defense, not so much the batting end.”

Burrell is equipped to play methodical, fundamental softball — boring to some, but effective for others. The kid in the student section wants home runs, but the purist can't wait for the sacrifice bunt that moves a runner into scoring position.

“The bats come and go,” Manga said. “Some days you have to manufacture runs.”

Spagnolo is a defensive-minded coach. Always has been. He obsesses over pitch counts, points to tendencies and constantly plays the percentages.

Burrell won the WPIAL Class AA championship two years ago with the same mentality.

This year's group, which has risen to No. 5 in the Trib rankings, is taking a similar path.

“The biggest challenge is to get them battle-ready,” Spagnolo said. “The girls don't realize how brief a season can be. You can be one and done. I want to get them to the point where they preserve shutouts but also come back and win tight games.”

Burrell (13-2) had defending WPIAL champion and top-ranked Deer Lakes (15-0) on the ropes earlier this season, but fell, 2-1.

The Bucs pulled off an impressive 10-0 win at Freeport. A season that started slowly finally is picking up momentum for Burrell, which is riding a six-game winning streak.

Burrell's weather-plagued schedule didn't allow a nonsection game until Wednesday, when the Bucs beat Class AAA Hampton, 10-3.

“We're going to play some (higher class) teams (this week). Hopefully we can squeak through those and get a good seed in the playoffs,” Spagnolo said. “But you don't want to count your chickens before they hatch.”

Class AAAA teams Kiski Area and Plum are on the agenda along with games against Class AAA Kittanning and Indiana.

“We're still a work in progress,” Spagnolo said. “We're still trying to find that combination that works.”

Burrell has a 12-player roster that includes four girls who played on Burrell's 24-4 WPIAL semifinalist basketball team. Can one deep playoff run help another?

“I think it helps being in high-pressure games,” Manga said. “It's a totally different sport, but we're capable of doing a lot if we stick together.”

Other basketball-turned-softball players are junior Kelsey Oddis and sophomores Erika Finn and Abby Nitowski. The four basketball players missed the first two weeks of softball season.

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