In quest for championship, Burrell softball team puts focus on details

Monday, April 30, 2018 | 11:15 PM

As Burrell attempted to close out its Section 1-3A softball game at Deer Lakes last week, the Bucs' coaches focused on their players' attention to detail.

A throw to the wrong base brought a sharp rebuke, while two examples of players taking an easier out at first base instead of a more difficult one elsewhere drew acclaim.

That the already playoff-bound Bucs led by several runs at the time and ultimately won 12-4, that mattered little to the team, which is very aware that the smallest plays can make a large difference toward their ultimate goal of a WPIAL championship.

“We've taught them this year that the offense is going to win them the games, but the defense is going to win the championship that we're looking for out of this group,” Burrell coach Brian Eshbaugh said.

That counts double for late-game situations, as Burrell can point to two recent examples of not closing out significant games.

First came last season's WPIAL Class 3A quarterfinal game against Ellwood City, where the Bucs led by three runs in the sixth inning only to see the Wolverines rally for a 6-5 victory en route to a WPIAL championship.

Of more significance to this season's team, Burrell (8-3, 7-1) led Freeport, 6-0, going into the final inning of their game April 11. Then the Yellowjackets scored eight runs in their last at-bat for a stunning victory.

“That Freeport game kind of hurt us,” junior catcher Lea Coffman said. “We were up the whole entire time, and when they came back, we realized you just can't let up at the end of the game. You have to keep going.”

Burrell held nine of its first 11 opponents to four runs or fewer, the exceptions being the loss to Freeport and a nonsection defeat against Class 5A opponent Albert Gallatin, a PIAA qualifier last season.

Senior pitcher Brittany Dunn, who split time in the circle last season with the now-graduated Kasey Wolford, is thriving as the Bucs' unquestioned No. 1 starter, with four shutouts in section play.

“She's getting better with each game,” Eshbaugh said. “She had a little slow start because of the weather, but she's coming on strong. She's getting stronger where we need her to be going into playoffs.”

Dunn's work, coupled with strong defense — outfielders Maia Ferra, Cara Fiore and Elizabeth Clark all made big catches in the win over Deer Lakes, while the infield played error-free softball — is complementing an explosive offense. Burrell's bats struggled in some of its biggest games last season — most significantly against section rivals Deer Lakes, Freeport and South Allegheny, against whom the Bucs finished 1-5.

That isn't the case this season: Burrell has reached double-digit runs six times and is getting a big boost from the long ball. Clark, Kelly Nitowski and Kayla Santucci all hit grand slams.

“I just think we have a really good group of girls this year, and we just have nice bats all down the lineup,” Nitowski said. “No matter what, we're going to hit the ball. No matter what pitch you throw at us, it doesn't matter: We're going to hit it in the field somewhere.”

Eshbaugh pointed to the Bucs' quick learning as a positive — “they make a mistake at one point, and they save us at another point; they always make up for their little blunder” — and they can test that theory with a rematch at Freeport on Tuesday afternoon, with first place in the section up for grabs.

“We're mad from that game,” Nitowski said. “We want to come back.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.


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