Gr8 expectations: Burrell joins top WPIAL dynasties
By claiming eighth
February 6, 2014 9:01 PM
The Burrell High School team celebrates its WPIAL Class AA championship as they defeat South Fayette High School 34-28, with help in a final match victory by Jason Roberts, center.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Call it the reality show of WPIAL sports.
Introducing ... Buc Dynasty.
The Burrell Bucs wrestling team is one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the WPIAL, and that's not an overstatement. It is indeed reality.
While one professional team of Bucs in Western Pennsylvania endured a record streak of losing, a bunch of teenager Bucs at Burrell High School are enjoying a championship streak seldom seen in any WPIAL sport. They have created their own version of elite eight.
Burrell, a small school located in the northwestern corner of Westmoreland County, won its eighth consecutive WPIAL Class AA wrestling championship last Saturday.
To put that in perspective, consider that the WPIAL started crowning football and basketball champions in the early 1900s. A few decades later, the league started awarding champions in other sports.
In the history of the WPIAL, from rifle to field hockey, Burrell wrestling is one of only 13 teams to win at least eight consecutive titles. The record is 20, won by the Bethel Park boys swimming team from 1981-2000.
"Wrestling might not be as big as football and basketball, but what Burrell has done is incredible," said Frank Vulcano, longtime head of the WPIAL wrestling committee and co-director of the Dapper Dan Wrestling Classic. "Look at what Clairton's football team did winning those [five] WPIAL championships in a row and the four state championships.
"Now Burrell hasn't won four states, but if Clairton would have continued on and won eight WPIAL football championships in a row, they would get so much publicity."
Although winning eight championships in a row is unusual, what makes the story more unusual is the team's coaching situation. Most high school dynasties have one instrumental coach. The Bucs have had four different head coaches during the eight championship seasons. All of the coaches stepped down for various personal reasons.
Chris Como won the first three WPIAL titles in the streak from 2007-09. Ryan Yates won the next two and Bud Sines two before stepping down. Josh Shields, a 2006 Burrell graduate and former WPIAL champion, took over this season at age 26. He had been an assistant under Sines for one year.
"I really didn't expect this coaching opportunity to come so quickly," Shields said.
Shields lives in Lower Burrell and works for a nutritional company in Robinson Township. He drives an hour to work every day and then back for wrestling practice. It can be tiresome. But to be the head coach at your alma mater and to take over a program so successful, Shields felt it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
The streak is not lost on Shields.
"It is something that will be in the record books for a long time," Shields said. "It's something that my children and even grandchildren might say someday, 'Hey my father or grandfather was the coach of some of those teams that won all those titles.'"
Although the streak is impressive, the main question is how does a semi-small school such as Burrell (enrollment of 588 in grades 9-12), keep churning out championship teams in a sport where some schools have trouble getting enough wrestlers to fill a team?
If you listen to Shields and others who know Burrell's program, the success is about talent, tradition and a strong youth program.
Shields will tell you assistant coach Chris Como is one of the big reasons for success. He was head coach when the Bucs won their first three titles of the streak before stepping back and becoming an assistant because he has young children of his own. He still remains with the program as an assistant under Shields.
Como and Isaac Greeley also run a wrestling club in Burrell called the Mat Factory, where wrestlers work out on their own and are coached by Como and Greeley, a former NCAA All-American at Pitt-Johnstown.
"One thing that has always been the same through this streak is the presence of Greeley and Como," Shields said. "What coach Como taught me, I'm teaching these kids now. It's all I know."
Como was Burrell's head coach for 11 years.
"I think there are a couple factors that go with the success," Como said. "One is we really kind of stress a tight-knit, family type of bond with the wrestlers.
"No. 2 is, I think, the system we have in place. We've all coached the same system and fundamental concepts since before this streak started. We want to focus on an aggressive style of wrestling and kind of use our conditioning to wear on people. The kids buy into the conditioning and it's a great strength of ours. We can then push the pace and wear kids out, which opens up opportunities to win."
Since the streak started in 2007, Burrell wrestlers have won 26 individual WPIAL titles and six PIAA championships. Dakota DesLauriers won three WPIAL titles from 2011-13.
Many of Burrell's wrestlers start out with the Burrell youth program.
"We have about 100-plus kids wrestling with the youth program in kindergarten through sixth grade. That's a lot of kids," Shields said. "Besides the WPIAL, we won a state championship in 2008.
"After that, it seemed like it became more of the cool sport to do in Burrell. It really helped increase involvement."
Vulcano commented: "There is no way they could continue to be good at the high school level if they didn't have a good youth program. There are big schools that barely get 40 to 50 kids total in their youth program. To have around 100, it tells you a lot."
But how long will the championship streak last? It's not like Burrell has been a prohibitive favorite to win the title every year. Many WPIAL wrestling observers thought the streak might end this season.
"I think the younger kids in this area realize the great tradition that has been started," Como said. "I don't think anybody wants to be that team that falls short."
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh
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