Westmoreland County high school basketball notebook: Latrobe coach proud of team’s effort in his final game

Wednesday, February 22, 2023 | 5:26 PM

Call it the last dance.

Latrobe’s girls gave fourth-seeded Trinity all it could handle in the WPIAL Class 5A first round, falling 69-61 as senior Josie Straigis broke out for a career-high 30 points.

The loss ended the Wildcats’ season, but it also signified the end of coach Mark Burkhardt’s time with the program.

With a shaky voice, Burkhardt told his team at the start of the year that “this is it,” and he would step down when the season was over.

After eight years, he is leaving the program better than when he found it.

That shaky voice returned, as did tears for the coach and his girls.

“I was happy to go out with a team that would never give up,” Burkhardt said. “That was symbolic of our season: We fought through every adversity. It was a bittersweet night. I probably felt every emotion imaginable.”

His final season had twists and turns, disappointment and resilience.

Latrobe endured the loss of standout center Emma Blair to return to the playoffs and finish with a 14-9 record.

Burkhardt took over the Wildcats in 2015, thinking it would be a temporary situation — a year or two “until they find somebody.”

Eight years later, he had guided the team to seven WPIAL playoff trips and a 111-69 record.

“It’s my eighth year of a one-year contract,” Burkhardt said in the preseason.

Latrobe reached the WPIAL semifinals two years ago for the first time since 1998. Last year, the team made its first trip to the PIAA playoffs since 1999.

Burkhardt began coaching the Derry boys when he was 24. He later coached the Latrobe junior high and freshmen teams for 14 years.

Big 5/6 honors

Westmoreland County was well-represented on the Big 5/6 Conferences all-section basketball teams.

The website recognizes the accomplishments of athletes and teams in the WPIAL’s two largest classifications.

In Class 6A, Harrison Sowers of Hempfield and Adam Bilinsky of Norwin made the Section 2 first team, and Hempfield’s Bill Swan was the coach of the year.

The Section 3-5A first team featured Latrobe’s Landon Butler, Isaiah Gonzalez of Kiski Area, Cam Rowell of Franklin Regional and Tyler Freas of Penn-Trafford.

Doug Kelly of Penn-Trafford was co-coach of the year with Gateway’s Alvis Rogers.

In girls 6A, Norwin had three Section 1 first-teamers in Kendall Berger, Ava Kobus and Lauren Palangio. Brian Brozeski of Norwin was the coach of the year.

In 5A, Kiski Area’s Abbie Johns made the first team in Section 1, and Olivia Pepple of Penn-Trafford and Camille Dominick of Latrobe made the first team in Section 3. Burkhardt was Section 3’s top coach.

Welcome home

Monessen’s girls team showed up at Petersen Events Center last weekend to welcome a famous alum back to Pittsburgh.

Charel Allen, the school’s second all-time leading scorer, is an assistant for the Notre Dame women, who played Sunday at Pitt.

Allen, who scored 3,110 points in high school, went on to play at Notre Dame, where she scored 1,566 points.

She played in the WNBA briefly before playing professionally in Bulgaria.

Four to score

Yough boys coach Jim Nesser accomplished a rare feat this season: The veteran coach has won a section title at four schools.

Nesser guided Yough to its first section title since 2005. The Cougars will play Neshannock in Thursday’s Class 3A quarterfinals at North Hills.

His other titles came at Elizabeth Forward, where he turned the program around in the early 2000s; Jeannette, where he coached Terrelle Pryor and Jordan Hall; and Hempfield.

He won WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2008 at Jeannette.

“My wife pointed it out to me,” Nesser said of the four sections. “I really hadn’t even thought about it.”

Butler offer

Division II schools have taken a liking to Latrobe senior guard Landon Butler’s game, but all of the programs aren’t local. In fact, one is from Alabama.

Montevallo, which competes in the Gulf South Conference, offered the 6-foot-4 Butler a scholarship.

Butler led the Wildcats in scoring this season at around 17 points per game. He scored 1,185 points for his career.

One … and done?

Three county teams will be looking to “shock the world” Friday night.

The Belle Vernon girls, Penn-Trafford girls and Norwin boys face No. 1 seeds in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

Belle Vernon and Penn-Trafford will face defending champions in Blackhawk (4A) and South Fayette (5A). Norwin travels to New Castle to play the top-seeded Red Hurricanes.

The Yough boys (Neshannock) and Belle Vernon boys (Laurel Highlands) will play No. 2 seeds Thursday.

BVA-LH, take 3

Belle Vernon and Laurel Highlands will meet for a third time when they tip off Thursday night at Peters Township in the WPIAL 4A quarterfinals.

Laurel Highlands is 2-0 against the Leopards this season as the teams played in the same section. The Mustangs won by scores of 69-64 and 78-59. In the second game, six players scored in double figures, with Keondre DeShields (34 points) and Rodney Gallagher (25) combining for as many points as Belle Vernon.

Belle Vernon is seeking its fourth semifinal appearance in a row.

Laurel Highlands has won two WPIAL titles in three years with Gallagher in the pilot seat.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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