Burrell hires Leechburg’s Joel Ceraso as girls basketball coach

Thursday, June 21, 2018 | 6:06 PM

Joel Ceraso sees similarities to his most recent coaching job when assessing his new one.

A team needing a boost after missing the playoffs? Check. A roster that likely will rely on some freshmen to play significant roles? Check, check.

Now, the coach who led Leechburg to its most successful girls basketball seasons in school history will attempt to duplicate that feat at Burrell, which is coming off an uncharacteristically down year.

Burrell's school board voted earlier this week to hire Ceraso, 52, as the Bucs' new coach, replacing Meaghan Volek. Ceraso, a Lower Burrell resident, spent the past five seasons as Leechburg's coach and oversaw the Blue Devils' remarkable turnaround from afterthought to contender.

“For them independently, it's going to be a process,” Ceraso said. “For what we do team-wise, we are going to try to do what we can to be successful for the upperclassmen, the seniors.

“Right now, there are four or five freshmen that probably will see time. That sounds pretty familiar, right?”

Indeed it does. When Ceraso took over at Leechburg in 2013, the Blue Devils were coming off a winless season and hadn't qualified for the WPIAL playoffs since 2006. And his first season with the program didn't go very well, either: a 1-17 record that included a 56-0 loss to Ford City.

After that season, however, Leechburg went on the best four-year run in school history. Guided by a six-player class of Mikayla Lovelace, Cameron Davies, Makenzie Fello, Daesha Knight, Brittany Robilio and Hannah Berry, the Blue Devils finished 58-34 from 2014-18, including three WPIAL playoff berths each of the last three seasons, plus two WPIAL playoff victories, two PIAA tournament appearances and one PIAA victory — all school firsts.

Lovelace finished her career with more than 2,000 career points, and Davies graduated as the school's all-time 3-point leader. The six players started virtually every game each of the past four seasons.

Although Ceraso said “there's no Mikayla Lovelace or anyone who shoots like Cam Davies” at Burrell, he believes rising seniors Kaylen Sharrow — the team's leading scorer last season — and Grace Omecinski can provide leadership for an otherwise young roster.

“There are a lot of good players there, so I'm excited to see what we can do growing this program,” Ceraso said. “There are a number of freshmen that we're going to count on, which is similar to what I dealt with at Leechburg, just guiding those freshmen through the waters of varsity basketball.”

It wasn't long ago that Burrell itself was a girls basketball power, of course. The Bucs won 114 games from 2011-16, finished as WPIAL runner-up in 2014, made two other WPIAL semifinal appearances and qualified for the PIAA playoffs four times. But after a first-round WPIAL playoff exit in 2017, Burrell slipped to 7-12 last season and missed the postseason in Volek's first year at the helm.

Ceraso, a Leechburg graduate, originally didn't plan to apply for the Burrell vacancy, but he lives in Burrell, his two children attend school there and he works with the district as a communications consultant.

“I care a lot about Leechburg, having been born there, and it's never easy to leave your alma mater,” Ceraso said. “I certainly care about the kids that are there. But Burrell is the community where I live, and my kids go to school there. I felt some sort of civic opportunity to support my community in the way I enjoy doing: in the gym and on the basketball court.”

Ceraso said he worked with Burrell's team Wednesday and Thursday after getting hired Tuesday, and he hopes to get more players to come out for the team in the fall. He also believes Leechburg is in good position to succeed next season even after the graduation of its record-setting senior class.

“The kids (at Leechburg) were great to work with and made it easy,” he said. “The coaching staff I had was great people to work with and made it easy. The administration and athletic director, (Mark) Jones, they made the job easy, they really did.

I know the people at Burrell — they're great people, too, and so I'm looking to have the support of the kids coming to work, the support of the staff I'm able to put together, the support of the community and parents. I look for it to be the same as it was at Leechburg.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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