Special season has community buzzing about Deer Lakes basketball

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Thursday, March 23, 2023 | 7:59 PM


All along the main drag, as usual, business carried on in the village of Russellton.

Shoppers headed in and out of the Deer Lakes Plaza, near the Russellton Fields soccer complex. Down the way, a man refueled his car at Trocki’s Service. Beyond there, at Tatoni’s Restaurant and Ale House, a couple of locals sat at the bar “shootin’ the breeze.”

But there was something else in the air.

Just off to the west of Deer Creek Valley Road, the town’s main artery, sits Deer Lakes High School, whose boys basketball team has been generating a buzz in the area for weeks now.

The noise is getting louder after the Lancers earned a trip to the PIAA Class 3A championship game in Hershey, where they’ll play Philadelphia’s West Catholic for a state title at 2 p.m. Saturday at Giant Center.

“We’ve always talked about being able to win the WPIAL championship, but now, wow, we did this. We’re in the state championship game,” said Nate Buechel, one of four Deer Lakes seniors who’ve been playing basketball together since early in their elementary school years.

“Me and Nate (Litrun) live in the same neighborhood (the Cedar Ridge section of West Deer). We rode bikes together and we always played basketball together in my cul de sac. We’d go to the Hampton Community Center and meet up with some other guys and play basketball. We’ve all been really good friends for a long time.”

Besides the two Nates — Buechel and Litrun — the other two seniors on the team are Michael Butler and Bryce Robson.

Inside the school’s gymnasium, the sound of bouncing balls served as a reminder of the excitement that has gripped the Deer Lakes communities of West Deer, East Deer and Frazer townships following the Lancers’ come-from-behind, 61-56 victory over Penn Cambria in the Class 3A semifinals Tuesday night at Hempfield.

A day later, on Wednesday, Russellton, like the rest of the district, was abuzz with the news.

“I was down at Palmer’s (Pharmacy) this morning and everybody was talking about it,” said Jeff Perez, a retired contractor and part-time bartender at Tatoni’s.

Sarah Marshalek, who tends bar at nearby Deer Lakes Bowl and Lounge, said she thinks it’s the most talk she’s ever heard in the area about basketball.

“I feel like Pittsburgh, as a whole, really isn’t a basketball city,” she said.

But this is about more than basketball. It’s about community pride. It’s about a group of young guys who’ve been on a mission for a very long time.

“We’ve always been close. We’ve always had a bond since we were in the younger grades,” Buechel said. “In fifth grade, we had an undefeated season. We always thought we were a good team, but that told us maybe for the first time that we had something special.”

Buechel said the four seniors had been looking forward to this season. Having it become so special is like some sweet dessert.

“We knew that when we were going to be seniors, there was a really athletic class below us, and we said that once we’re combined with these kids, we’re going to be good.”

And how. It was two juniors — Billy Schaeffer (17 points) and Wayne Love (16) — who led Deer Lakes past Penn Cambria and into the championship fray.

Even without the 6-foot-5 Litrun for much of Tuesday’s game, Deer Lakes prevailed.

Litrun reinjured his left ankle in the second quarter and did not return. But he was on the floor the following day at Deer Lakes, running, jumping and shooting.

First-year Deer Lakes coach Albie Fletcher said he expected Litrun to be close to 100% by game time Saturday.

“He switched out his shoes and I think these will help with support,” Fletcher said. “That’s the fourth time he’s rolled that ankle this season.”

Fletcher, who was elevated to the top spot in June after the resignation of longtime coach Terence Parham, said his phone was active from the time Tuesday’s game ended until well after he returned home after he visited the bowling alley.

He thanked Deer Lakes Bowl and Lounge owners George and Dana Germanic for welcoming his coaching staff and friends of the team all year long.

George Germanic, who coaches the WPIBL champion Deer Lakes bowling team and attended the school several years after Fletcher, said he’s not really sure how the basketball team adopted his establishment as a home base of sorts, but he didn’t want to stop the fun.

“It’s not about patronizing us. It’s about more than that,” Germanic said. “They came here after one of the wins and everybody was excited. I’m friends with some of them and texted them and said, ‘Come up again when you win.’ We wanted to keep it going from a superstition standpoint.’”

At the bar, Marshalek served wings to a couple of fellows from Cranberry, who work in nearby Allison Park.

“I guess it’s good that the small schools get a chance to play in the states,” said one of the guys. Cranberry is part of the Seneca Valley School District. The Raiders compete mainly in Class 6A.

Marshalek, who lives in New Kensington, said many of her customers and the bowling establishment’s staff members are residents of the Deer Lakes School District and, accordingly, they’ve worn their pride on their sleeves.

“They’ve really embraced the school district as a whole, but definitely the recent success of the boys basketball team,” she said. “I would say people here definitely have been excited throughout the entire season, especially through the playoffs. They’ve been coming back here after winning games — the parents and fans, the coaches, not the players. They’ve been coming to celebrate.”

The Deer Lakes boys basketball team is looking to join a small group of elite teams at the school to win state titles. The 2011 and 1978 boys volleyball teams came home with gold medals as did the 1985 girls basketball team. Three other teams finished as state runners-up: the 2018 boys soccer team, the 2015 softball team and the 2000 girls track and field team.

What’s more, Fletcher’s sister, Michele (Fletcher) Southwick, was a junior guard on the Lancers’ state championship girls basketball team in 1985.

Albie Fletcher, himself a 1993 graduate of Deer Lakes, played point guard on a pair of the school’s WPIAL section-champion boys basketball teams in 1991 and ‘92. But Fletcher never had the opportunity to go where his current team has landed.

“I asked Coach Parham if he had any advice for a rookie coach going to Hershey,” said Fletcher, who served as an assistant to Parham for a portion of the seven seasons that Parham led the team to a combined 86-66 record.

“It’s really cool to see this group in this moment,” Fletcher added. “Coach Parham and I always said we wanted to do this together. He’s a crazy-busy man with a lot of business ventures. Even though Coach isn’t here now, he’s very excited to have the opportunity to see us go.”

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