Burrell boys motivated to start fast this season
By: Doug Gulasy
Wednesday, November 22, 2017 | 6:06 PM
Fond of motivational tactics and themes, Shawn Bennis is investing in wristbands for his Burrell boys basketball players this fall.
The accessories are inspired by the book “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable,” by Tim Grover, a trainer and public speaker who worked with the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
“That's just teaching them to battle, be relentless, be who you are, stay true to who you are (and) continue to battle,” said Bennis, who this year is leaning on sayings like “We is greater than me” and “Believe or leave.”
If anything, Burrell knows the power of belief and staying relentless, particularly after a 2016-17 season that saw the Bucs rebound from a 1-10 start to make the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2014.
The relentlessness that drove Burrell to the brink of a Section 3-3A championship continues to inspire the Bucs as they strive for a repeat performance — albeit one with a better beginning.
“Daily we preach mental toughness and being relentless and not getting too high with the highs and not getting too low with the lows, to really enjoy the process, enjoy being together, enjoy being in the gym and not letting a win or a loss or a poor game or a poor shot or anything of that nature ruin or affect you mentality,” Bennis said.
“Last year was a good example of that. If you're not mentally tough, then I don't know if you can start the season 1-10 and ultimately (compete for a section title).”
The 1-10 start came down to a few factors: a difficult early schedule, compounded with player injuries and illnesses and the general difficulties of finding the right roles for players.
But a four-game winning streak early in section play buoyed Burrell and led to the run.
“You can't get down on yourself,” junior guard Logan Bitar said. “We played a lot of schools that were 5A or 6A schools. It was hard, we lost confidence, but we bounced back. We came together.”
Whether Burrell can have a similar or better season will come down to how the Bucs can fit into their new roles.
Bitar, the No. 2 scorer a season ago as an off guard, will shift to point guard as the replacement for Max Garda, a four-year starter — a transition Bennis acknowledged is “easier said than done” because of the point guard's almost coach-like responsibility on the floor.
“(Garda was) a really great leader. It's big shoes to fill,” Bitar said. “But we learned a lot from him. He plays hard all the time, so I've just got to match that. I think I've just got to handle pressure better. It's faster at point guard. Everything moves faster. I just have to slow it down and play at my pace.”
Seniors Zach Gimbel and Dom Zottola also return as starters, and seniors Jake Okapol and Donovan Russell also have starting experience.
Beyond those five, Burrell has competition for starting spots: Gimbel and Okapol are vying for time at guard with sophomores Logan Phillips and Seth Fischbach. The forward competition includes Russell and Zottola and juniors Andrew Bigler and Luke Kastellic.
“A big thing right now is I'm pushing opportunity,” Bennis said. “There's so many kids that are on an equal playing field right now that the guys that want to step up and play the hardest and follow directions and buy into the system is the type of players who are going to play.”
Bennis said the team has size and athleticism but also is a bit raw because a majority of the players play fall sports. That transition to basketball could play a large role in how the Bucs fare this season.
Burrell's section includes Apollo-Ridge, East Allegheny, Shady Side Academy, South Allegheny and Steel Valley, and the Bucs will open the season at Freeport's tip-off tournament.
“I still think the conference, we're going to have to battle and do what we do,” Bennis said. “But I expect to hopefully be in the hunt like we were late last year. Obviously, the goal every year is to win the section, make the playoffs, make a run in the WPIAL and move on.”