T.J. Trozzi tasted success last year in his first season as the Burrell High School boys soccer coach, guiding the Bucs to a WPIAL Section 1-AA championship and a berth in the WPIAL playoffs.
Burrell is having a stellar season with a 12-1-1 overall record and a section-leading 9-1-1 mark with one section match remaining on its schedule. The team lost for the first time this season Tuesday night when second-place Indiana (11-4, 9-2) pulled a 5-1 upset.
The Bucs have one giant hurdle remaining to be cleared in section play against neighboring rival Valley (9-4-2, 8-1-2) tonight. A Burrell victory would clinch the section title.
A Valley victory combined with an Indiana win against Derry would give Indiana the title. Valley could still claim the section title with a victory and a Derry upset of Indiana
To Trozzi, the swift start last year and this year's solid beginning show some differences.
"We do have a younger team with just six seniors, and four of them are starters," the Bucs coach said. "This team, however, is a lot closer than the team we had last year both on and off the field.
"They work hard together, and they've gone to football games together. They also worked out a lot together on their own. There would be times that I'd be driving past the field during the summer, and I'd see them working out on their own. It's an awesome feeling when you see guys trying to improve themselves on their own."
That tenacity has lit up the scoreboard. The Bucs have outscored their opponents 37-12 and shut out seven teams.
Trozzi credits solid goaltending and a stingy defense.
Burrell's second-year goalkeeper, Alex White, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior, has made the most of his short tenure in the sport.
"He put a lot of effort into his training last year, and what really helped is that he's a very good athlete," Trozzi said. "He's a very good basketball player, and he has great hand-eye coordination."
An injury forced White to miss three games. But the Bucs had two players step in and play well in goal. Steve Murphy, a 5-10, 170-pound junior, had a pair of 2-0 shutouts for Burrell against Derry and Knoch.
Justin Schwartz, a 5-9, 160-pound sophomore, yielded two first-half goals against Greensburg Salem but played flawlessly en route to a 3-2 victory against the Golden Lions in the teams' first meeting on Sept. 13.
Trozzi said three players have been instrumental in keeping a lot of pressure away from the Burrell goal.
"Jimmy Meyers [6-0, 180, Sr.] is our sweeper, and his knowledge of the game is huge," Trozzi said. "He does a great job in directing the other players, and he's earned his job as a captain."
Flanking Meyers are two speedy outside defenders, Evan West (5-8, 160, Jr.) and Ben Wertkin (6-0, 170, Sr.).
"They are two of the fastest players on the team," Trozzi said. "A lot of teams like to attack on the outside, and they are able to move quickly enough to move them back to the inside and get some help from Jimmy. All three of them work well together."
With a solid defense, the Bucs benefit from a balanced offense that has helped secure victories by comfortable and close margins.
Forwards Tom Spagnolo (5-7, 165, Jr.) and older brother Peter Spagnolo (5-8, 170, Sr.) are Burrell's leading scorers with 11 and six goals, respectively.
"Peter is more of a playmaker as he has eight assists," Trozzi said. "Tom has two assists, and we're also getting some key plays from Joey Cox (6-0, 170, Soph.), a center midfielder who has scored three goals and sets up a lot of plays for us."
The Bucs have won four one-goal games, which Trozzi believes will help as the regular season winds down and playoff preparations begin.
"Defense is the most important thing," the coach said. "When we've been in a one-goal game, Tom or Pete will drop back and play a little defense for us. I've told the guys that's important because everyone on this team is going to play offense or defense. Since they've been willing to do that, we've been comfortable when we've been in a one-goal game.".