With star Emma Blair injured, Latrobe coach’s final season takes new direction

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Wednesday, December 14, 2022 | 11:01 AM


As he sat in a hotel room in Fairfax County, Va., last Saturday morning, Mark Burkhardt had his team’s next move on his mind.

The Latrobe girls basketball coach was ready to patch together a reconfigured lineup and introduce a tweaked playbook, all while doing so with a stiff upper lip.

“I was up at 5:30 in the morning drawing up plays on a napkin for two hours,” he said. “We had to put something together on the fly. We had to move girls into new positions. That’s not easy to do.”

It was a situation he had never been in before and, conversely, one he will never be in again.

Why?

Because this is Burkhardt’s last season coaching the Latrobe girls. He told the team on the first day of practice that he was stepping aside after eight seasons.

His final year had promise with so much talent back, but injuries could derail the Wildcats’ hopes.

Latrobe had misfortune in a trip to Virginia. Now, it hopes the whole season doesn’t go south.

Senior standout Emma Blair injured her knee Friday in the team’s first game at the She Got Game Classic in Virginia, during the first quarter of a 68-45 loss against King’s Fork (Va.), and is out for the rest of the season.

The 6-foot-1 Blair is the returning Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year and a Division I South Carolina Upstate commit. She was on crutches earlier this week when the Wildcats returned home and lost 59-21 to Norwin.

Blair will continue to support the team.

“She has always been the ultimate team player, and we will miss her on the court,” Burkhardt said. “But we are happy to have her still contribute to the team.”

Junior point guard Elle Snyder has been out all season with an ankle injury suffered during volleyball season. She has been cleared for noncontact practice and is expected back, which is good news for the Wildcats.

With Blair out, everything changes: the way the team plays, the way it prepares, the way opponents attack it.

Blair has 751 points and 724 rebounds in her career.

“I feel for them,” Norwin coach Brian Brozeski said.

The Wildcats (4-2) have negotiated Snyder’s absence, but Blair’s is a massive setback they may not be able to overcome.

“You’re never ready for something like that,” Burkhardt said. “We lost 39 points and 18 rebounds a game between those two.

“I mean, it could work out, or it could go the other way. We have other girls stepping in to play. Many of them have not seen varsity minutes, so it’s baptism of fire.”

Last year, the team lost standout post player Anna Rafferty to a knee injury, and some other girls sat out for covid protocols, but the Wildcats made do until Rafferty came back.

This situation is different because of inexperience after the starters.

Senior Camille Dominick has moved from her small forward/shooting guard spot to center. She had 22 points and 14 rebounds in the game in which Blair was injured.

Freshman Paityn Bauer and junior Sami Kronenwetter have helped to fill the void.

Latrobe has yet to start section play but will open with back-to-back heavyweights in Oakland Catholic (Thursday) and McKeesport (Tuesday).

A third straight playoff trip is the goal. The Wildcats also are chasing three section titles in a row.

“We are going to need teamwork to do our best to get through it,” senior forward Josie Straigis said. “We need to keep working together.”

Straigis had 17 points to help Latrobe to a 43-41 win over George C. Marshall (Va.) in the final game of the Virginia trip.

Burkhardt came back for one more year, in large part, to see Blair’s career through to completion.

He had numerous coaching stops before his time at Latrobe.

He coached the Derry boys for four years, beginning when he was 24, and guided the Trojans to their first playoff appearance in 30 years.

He spent 14 years coaching boys junior high and freshmen boys basketball at Latrobe, including coaching Wildcats coach Brad Wetzel when Wetzel was in sixth grade.

Burkhardt, a tax collector in Unity Township, boiled his decision to resign down to three things.

“Two full-time jobs at my age has become very difficult, as well as the year-round time commitment,” he said. “(Secondly), I currently have two grandchildren and that will double next year.

“(Also) I don’t like the direction high school sports are going with AAU and now NIL. The competitive balance between public and private will widen, and public will eventually become rec basketball. Public programs won’t be able to compete with the AAU/NIL private conglomerate.”

Burkhardt is 97-60 with the girls and has six winning seasons. Latrobe has gone 32-8 the last two years, and it reached the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals two years ago for the first time since 1998.

Last year, it made the PIAA playoffs for the first time since 1999.

Burkhardt took over the girls team thinking it would be a temporary gig, while the district saw him as a short-term fix. That was in 2015.

“Brad (Wetzel) asked me to coach junior high for one year till he could find someone,” Burkhardt said. “Mark Mears used the same line asking me to take the girls. I always said I was in the 14th year of a one-year contract with boys, and eighth year of a one-year contract with girls. It’s time.”

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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