Burrell boys eye return to postseason after dropping to Class 3A

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Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | 4:47 PM


A new section with new opponents in a new classification doesn’t change the goals of the Burrell boys basketball team.

That’s the view of fourth-year Bucs coach Mike Fantuzzo, who hopes to guide this year’s group to a return trip to the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs.

Burrell, like all the other teams in the WPIAL, will have a hectic dash to the start of the season Dec. 2 as preseason practices begin Friday.

“We’ve had to kind of pick up the pace a little bit more in the open gyms to start putting in our stuff,” Fantuzzo said.

“The football and soccer guys did a nice job of being able to come this fall to kind of go over the stuff we were putting in. Hopefully, come Friday, we’re in a better spot to start rolling.”

Burrell grew from just one win in the 2019-20 season to nine wins in 2020-21 and 14 wins last year.

The Bucs finished second in Section 1-4A to North Catholic at 9-3 and were 14-10 overall.

Led by the now graduated Brandon Coury (Seton Hill), Donovan Callahan, Travis Bitar and Gavynn Thompson, they swept rival Deer Lakes in section play and topped Class 5A McDowell at a holiday tournament.

The first home game in its playoff history saw Burrell eliminate Elizabeth Forward.

“Last year was such a special one with those guys,” Fantuzzo said.

“There is a lot of energy around the program. One of the biggest things from that is the success has helped boost our numbers with kids wanting to come out and be a part of what we’re doing from the younger levels to new faces we see this year.”

Fantuzzo said Joey Discello, a junior guard, is back with the Bucs program after not playing since eighth grade.

He said Discello is in line to contribute this season in some compacity.

Macky Bennis, a junior guard, is the only returning starter. He finished last year as the team’s second leading scorer at 12.1 points per game. He averaged 3.8 rebounds, drained 35 3-pointers and shot 80% from the free-throw line.

“He’s looking to step up his game to more than just shooting from the outside,” Fantuzzo said. “He’s doing that. He’s done a nice job getting to the hoop.

“He’s a captain this year, too, and he knows he has to pick up responsibility outside of just what he does with his skills on the court during games. It comes down to his leadership in practices and when we need someone to take charge in games. He’s done a great job in taking on that leadership where he helps kids and explains things to the newer ones.”

Sophomore guard Tucker Bitar, Fantuzzo said, is taking the right steps to increase his role.

“He’s grown from last year, which has definitely helped,” Fantuzzo said. “He’s one of those kids who is just a player when you get into the games. Last year, when he came in, we knew we would have some growing pains coming from eighth grade basketball to varsity. Now, we aren’t seeing those mistakes or any confusing situations. He’s done a really nice job taking control at the point.”

Others ready to make their mark, Fantuzzo said, include junior centers Esau King-Buchak and Ryan Croushore, both at 6-foot-4.

“They both have been around in the offseason and ready to step into larger roles,” Fantuzzo said.

Junior guard Dylan McKalip, Fantuzzo said, is a smart player who is solid defensively.

Coulter Christie, a junior, is another guard Fantuzzo trusts to handle and shoot the ball.

“Hopefully, we will be able to go seven or eight deep,” Fantuzzo said.

Burrell moves down to Class 3A with Deer Lakes, a playoff team last year, and Derry.

The Bucs remain a section foe with both the Lancers and Trojans, and will have new section matchups with Apollo-Ridge, Ligonier Valley, Valley and Shady Side Academy.

Shady Side Academy is the defending WPIAL Class 3A champion, and Ligonier Valley earned a WPIAL playoff spot in Class 3A. Apollo-Ridge and Valley missed the playoffs last year in Section 3.

“We’re not as familiar with some of the teams as we are with Deer Lakes and Derry, but we’re excited to play somewhat local against teams like Valley and Apollo-Ridge,” Fantuzzo said. “We know Shady Side has some really good players coming back from that championship team. We have experience back from a tough section last year and some tough playoff games. I know we’ll be ready.”

Burrell kicks off its season Dec. 2 and 3 against Class 4A Highlands and Class 5A Shaler at the Highlands tournament.

Before that, the Bucs will scrimmage Knoch, Central Catholic and Mars.

“The scrimmages and the opening tournament will be good for the guys to see teams that have had success and what it will take in terms of the hard work and physicality needed to get to the next level,” Fantuzzo said.

“The guys are always ready for the competition.”

Burrell boys at a glance

Coach: Mike Fantuzzo

Last year’s record: 14-10 (9-3 Section 1-4A)

Returning starter: Macky Bennis (Jr., G)

Top newcomer: Joey Discello (Jr., G)

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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