Depth, unrelenting style keep Burrell among WPIAL's wrestling elite
When Chris Como roamed the hallways of Burrell High School as a student in the late 1980s, he belonged to a wrestling team that created minimal buzz among his classmates.
The Bucs were a tough bunch, but their team and the topic of success rarely came up in the same sentence.
“A good team year for us was going .500,” said Como, a 1989 graduate. “(The program) kind of bottomed out as soon as Coach (Chuck) Tursky left (in 1986). As a result, we kind of fell into some dark times.
“Now, wrestling at Burrell, it's like a cool thing to do.”
A credit to Como, Burrell's coach from 1998 to 2009, and the program's other contributors, students now encounter daily reminders of the team's excellence. There's the crowded team banner in the gym that's loaded with patches signifying section and WPIAL championships. And just outside the gym, there's a hallway lined with pictures of title-winning teams and individuals.
It's been a decade of dominance for Burrell, which won the WPIAL Class AA team tournament each of the past seven seasons and eight of the past 10. Coaching staffs changed and wrestlers graduated, but the winning continued.
Those who helped turn Burrell into a powerhouse now lead the Bucs from the coaches' chairs. Under the supervision of first-year coach and 2006 graduate Josh Shields as well as Burrell-bred assistants Zach Pisano (2006 grad) and Gino Lanzino (2005 grad), the Bucs are the No. 1 seed in this year's WPIAL team tournament, which begins with preliminary-round matches Monday and concludes with the finals Saturday at Chartiers Valley High School.
“My freshman and sophomore year, we were the underdogs, and we weren't expected to win much,” Shields said. “We barely had enough kids to fill a whole team. And now, at every weight, we have kids that we're sending to JV tournaments.”
Como, an assistant to Sean DesLauriers when Burrell won the WPIAL team title in 1997, understood the challenge in front of him as he took over in 1998. The Bucs gave up two to four forfeits each match, creating a 12- to 24-point deficit that often proved insurmountable.
“We could put 10, 12 quality guys out there that'd go and wrestle a strong team,” said Como, who noted that the 2001 team reached the WPIAL semifinals with just 10 wrestlers in the lineup, That squad lost to eventual champion, Shady Side Academy, 40-29. “Our focus still was on individuals, though. Every little bit of success we had individually, we tried to build off that, and it kind of snowballed.”
The individual accolades piled up. Joel DesLauriers became Burrell's first PIAA champion in 1997. Ryan Yates made the PIAA finals in 1999. Then Joe Makara reached the state finals in 2000 and won championships in 2002 and '03.
The outnumbered Bucs employed a physical, aggressive wrestling style that Como learned at Pitt-Johnstown. They not only won most of the contested weight classes, but they also racked up bonus points with pins.
“Coach Como had a system that was always about going forward and grinding,” Makara said. “It's wearing on them and wearing on them until they just don't want to wrestle anymore and basically want to be pinned.”
Interest at the youth and junior high level boomed. With its improved depth, Burrell's lineup rivaled or rated better than that of any Class AA program.
Teams such as Mt. Pleasant — which beat Burrell in the finals in 2003, '05 and '06 — and Shady Side Academy — which lost to the Bucs in the finals in 2008, '09 and '10 — no longer carry much clout in the WPIAL postseason.
Burrell, meanwhile, has thrived even during seasons when it relied heavily on underclassmen, as it did in 2012, when a lineup of four seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen defeated Jefferson-Morgan, 34-31, for the title.
“It's really a community effort,” Shields said. “It starts at the youth level, where we have 100-plus kids every year. It's kind of like a machine, and it's our job to keep it going.”
The 2008 squad set Burrell's gold standard. It won the PIAA dual-meet tournament — the 2011 team, though unable to win the state dual tournament, finished first in the standings at the PIAA individual championships.
State supremacy is what Shields wants Burrell to focus on during the decade to come.
Como, who still volunteers with the team, believes there's no one better suited to push Burrell to the top of Pennsylvania than the guys who fueled the Bucs' ascension to the WPIAL's apex.
“I have all the confidence in the world that these guys will carry on the banner,” Como said. “This cyclical approach, where you see guys you coached step into a more mentor-like role, it's really awesome. I take great joy in that.”