Burrell, Valley boys basketball teams try to work out kinks in summer
By: Doug Gulasy
Sunday, July 8, 2018 | 11:21 PM
Burrell and Valley played in Friday’s Westmoreland County Coaches Association boys basketball showcase without their normal coaches, giving the neighboring rivals at least one thing in common.
But the teams’ summer similarities don’t stop there. Both are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances but have some growing pains to get through if they want to complete their unfinished business.
The WCCA event revealed the reason for some of those inconsistencies: Burrell competed without some of its expected starters, who are playing other sports this summer, and Valley attempted to get its players to jell as they learn new roles after the graduation of some of its key starters from the back-to-back playoff runs.
“It’s kind of different because our team now, we’re like playing one-on-one basketball but not as a team,” Valley rising senior Deonte Ross said. “Everybody needs to learn how to work together to create good shots or just play defense.”
Valley rose from a one-win team in 2015-16 to a playoff team the following year. Last season, the Vikings tied for second in Section 1-4A, beat South Park in the WPIAL first round for their first postseason victory since 2009 and qualified for the PIAA tournament.
“We have the team to make a run this year,” Ross said. “It’s just we’ve got to work together. If we don’t work together, we’re not going to make playoffs this year at all.”
The graduation of players such as point guard Dru Stokes and wing players such as Alex Ward, a strong shooter, and Darius Johnson, a key defender, rebounder and slasher on offense, leave returners such as Ross and fellow rising senior Nyjewel Carter to pick up the pieces. Carter, Valley’s best shooter, played more point guard in Friday’s event.
Other returning players such as Roman Flenory, Adisun Jackson, Isiah Mangol, Elijah Murray and Javon Wade-Shaw also likely will be expected to take on bigger roles next season.
“It’s different not having the seniors out there,” Carter said. “It also is good to be a senior myself, take that role. It’s good being our turn, but I do miss them. It’s definitely different to not have Dru at the (point guard), and me playing the ‘one.’ It’s just different.”
Burrell is in a similar situation needing to replace key pieces such as center Donovan Russell, a consistent double-double threat, Zach Gimbel, Jake Okopal and Dom Zottola. The Bucs’ biggest issue this summer, however, has been availability.
“We’ve been missing a lot of guys because we’re a smaller school and people play other sports,” said rising senior point guard Logan Bitar, the Bucs’ leading scorer last season. “We get here when we can. We have a lot to work on.”
Like its rival Valley, Burrell feels the sting of unfinished business. The Bucs had a remarkable in-season turnaround two years ago, rebounding from a 1-10 start to make the playoffs, before winning a share of the Section 3-3A championship last season.
Burrell’s success last season, which led to a No. 5 seed, didn’t transfer to the playoffs, when the Bucs failed to crack 30 points in a first-round upset against Riverside.
“I feel like we had a chance to go far, and we just (lost),” Bitar said. “It was there, and it was one of those games where nothing would go in. It happens. We played hard and left it out there. It happens.”
Bitar said he believes Burrell has a chance to go far this season, provided the Bucs can work out some of their kinks before the season.
The summer, then, represents a big opportunity for Burrell, as many of its core players play football in the fall and thus have less time for basketball. Burrell played in the St. Joseph summer league and got in three more games at Friday’s shootout.
“Summer’s huge,” Bitar said. “That’s when your team starts building, and that’s when you build your chemistry and really work on your skills that you need to work on for the season.”
Rising senior Andrew Bigler, a potential replacement for Russell, missed Friday’s event, and Bitar tweaked his knee midway through Burrell’s second game. Seth Fischbach, Luke Kastellic and Logan Phillips are among the key returners for Burrell.
Burrell and Valley share common ground, and they will once the season arrives in December as they will play in the realigned Section 3-3A. How the rest of the summer plays out could affect next season’s section and playoff races.
“It’s still a process,” Carter said. “We’ve got to still keep chipping away, keep working hard every day, get in the gym a lot and be ready for the season.”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.