Robert Niederberger was warned when he became Burrell High's boys basketball coach three years ago.
"This was a wrestling school," he said he was told. "Everyone thinks of wrestling, football and baseball. They never talk about basketball."
Maybe they will now.
Defying many observers' expectations, the Buccaneers raced past four Class AA playoff opponents to reach the WPIAL Class AA boys championship game before falling to Beaver Falls in the title contest, 61-33, Saturday at Palumbo Center. Placing second in the WPIAL tournament earned the 19-7 Bucs a berth in the PIAA Class AA boys tournament that begins at 4:30 p.m. Saturday with a game against Bishop McCort, the third-place team from District 6, at Gateway High School.
Last week was the first time Burrell had been in the WPIAL title game since 1979 when the Buccaneers also lost to Beaver Falls.
"That's something we've worked on these last three years, to change [the thinking about Burrell High basketball]," Niederberger said. "These guys have done an excellent job."
The Bucs have put points on the board. Burrell's scoring balance was solid with senior guard Pete Spagnolo averaging 13 points a game, while Cole Bush and Matt Hess averaged 12 and 10 points, respectively. Bush, who did not play basketball a year ago, also pulled down 10 rebounds a game.
Niederberger and his Bucs got a taste of what it's like to be at the upper level of the pecking order in WPIAL basketball. And he's not about to see that work go to waste.
"I don't go to work five or six days a week all spring, summer and fall to come in here just to make the playoffs," the coach said. "If you want to be good, you have to put the time in. I expect to be back here, and you will see us back here."
Niederberger acknowledged that while Beaver Falls had some new players in its lineup from the squad that won the WPIAL title a year ago, the intensity was the same.
"You think you have an advantage if you can work the ball inside [to taller players]," he said. "The problem is: Can you get the ball inside? The pressure defense is so hard, it's tough to see down there. We just couldn't get the ball inside the post."
Niederberger said a microcosm of Burrell's season was displayed in its two games with Quaker Valley.
In Burrell's second game of the season, the Bucs were throttled by the Quakers, 53-39. The two teams met again in the semifinals of the WPIAL tournament on Feb. 27, and Burrell earned a 43-32 overtime victory.
The first time the teams played, Burrell had a tough time with Quaker Valley's 2-3 zone defense in the second half. But in the rematch, Bush scored most of his game-high 16 points in the second half. Then Burrell got hot in the extra period, outcoring the Quakers, 13-2.
"In the second game [against Quaker Valley], we believed we were the better team," Niederberger said. "Basketball season is a long season. You're going to have your ups and downs, and these guys understand that. We had our little skid, and we realize that's part of the season."
That "little skid" took place in early January when Burrell lost successive games to Section 1 rivals West Shamokin (74-69) and Deer Lakes (48-44), followed by non-section defeats to Brashear of the City League (64-52) and WPIAL Class A runner-up Clairton (51-46).
"We knew we were a much better team than that, and we came back and fought hard," the Bucs coach said. "We finished [the regular season] the way we expected to."
Six successive wins allowed Burrell to finish the regular season as Section 1 co-champs with Deer Lakes. Four consecutive victories in the WPIAL tournament followed before the decisive loss to Beaver Falls last Saturday.
The Bucs' regular-season victory streak included wins against West Shamokin (52-40) and Deer Lakes (47-46).
Its strong finish failed to impress the WPIAL's basketball committee, and Burrell met Beth-Center in a play-in game. The Bucs' 64-34 victory against the Bulldogs touched off a four-game playoff streak that included victories against Washington (61-50), Greensburg Central Catholic (67-63) and Quaker Valley.
Their magic tale ended with the loss to Beaver Falls, but the Bucs can write a new chapter starting with Bishop McCort.
Niederberger and his Burrell team have a few days to work on an offense stifled by Beaver Falls in a first quarter that saw the Tigers take a 15-2 lead.
"The pressure I was concerned with going into the game was the full-court pressure," the Bucs coach said. "But we were actually OK with that in the first half."
The half-court pressure, though, was a different matter.
"We couldn't get into our offense," he said. "That's what we needed to do. We needed to slow the game up and get into our offense. We got there, but we just struggled getting open. Kudos to [Beaver Falls]. There's a reason why they're here [in Palumbo Center] every year. We just couldn't execute our game plan."
Niederberger hopes the effort his team displayed against a tough non-section schedule will pay off -- not only in the PIAA tournament, but in future seasons.
"I think that [non-section schedule) was the difference," he said. "We saw we're just as good as those guys. GCC, Beaver Falls and Quaker Valley are always in [playoff discussions]. We were supposed to lose to Washington High, but we're just as good as anybody outside of Beaver Falls. They are the class of Double-A."
That's something Niederberger hopes people will say soon about Burrell.