Returning to coach at his alma mater over three years ago, Rob Niederberger faced something of an uphill climb to build the boys basketball team at Burrell High School into a consistent winner.
Granted, the Buccaneers finished 14-8 the season before he arrived under former coach Mark Ziemianski, but seven seniors graduated from a team that bowed out in the preliminary round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.
In many ways, Niederberger inherited very little at a school that hadn't won a WPIAL playoff game since 2001 and hadn't advanced to a WPIAL championship game since 1979 -- before Niederberger was even born.
But over the course of the past three seasons, he has built Burrell up and just this season helped lead the Bucs to one of the program's best seasons in history.
The Buccaneers saw their season come to an end last Saturday with a 62-43 loss to Bishop McCort of Johnstown in the first round of the PIAA playoffs, but they had a nine-win improvement this season, one which gave them a Section 1 championship and an appearance in the WPIAL Class AA title game.
For Niederberger and the Burrell program, this season was the culmination of a building process, one that has developed over the past several years.
Niederberger did not take over as coach until just a month before the start of the 2010-11 season.
To compound matters, in his first season at the helm, the Buccaneers had a roster that featured seven sophomores and just one senior.
Predictably, the team struggled for much of the season, finishing 4-18. After winning its first two games, Burrell won just two games for the rest of the season.
But as his roster matured -- six of the players on the 2010-11 roster were seniors this season -- the team's fortunes, and record understandably improved.
Although they went through a stretch where they lost nine of 10 games the next season, the Buccaneers started the season 7-1 and went on to finish 10-11, a six-win improvement from the previous season. Despite finishing second-to-last in the Section 1 standings, the team also cut their points per game allowed by more than 12 points (60.6 to 48.1).
This season, the logical step forward came in a much bigger way than many expected. After finishing 15-6 in the regular season, the Buccaneers went on a surprising run through the WPIAL Class AA playoffs, first by defeating Beth-Center and Washington before upsetting Greensburg Central Catholic in the quarterfinals. They beat Quaker Valley in the semifinals before getting routed by top-seeded Beaver Falls, 61-33, in the WPIAL championship game.
"It definitely helped," Niederberger said of the importance of his team's senior presence. "Anytime you have seniors, I think they feel an urgency to win."
During that four-win run in the playoffs, Burrell held opponents to 44.8 points per game (in three of those games, teams scored 50 or fewer points) and relied on their strong frontcourt of Matt Hess and Cole Bush to help carry the offense. In all, the team won its most regular season games since 2004.
Next season will likely be a rebuilding one for Niederberger and Burrell, as nine of the team's players are graduating. But if the last few years have been an indication, the Buccaneers won't be down for long.
"When you have kids who are in seventh grade and sixth grade who watch us play at Palumbo [Center] in the WPIAL championship, they get a taste in their mouth and it's hard to take that out," Niederberger said.
Winchester Thurston sets mark
The girls' basketball team at Winchester Thurston played its last game of the 2012-13 season with a 52-30 loss to Clarion last Saturday, but the setback did not come without some kind of history.
This season, the Bears made their second consecutive appearance in the PIAA playoffs, the first time the program has accomplished that feat in school history.
Over the past two seasons, Winchester Thurston has gone 26-21 under coach Monica Williams, who just finished her ninth season with the school.
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