By RJ Walters / Daily News Sports Editor
As published in the Hillsdale Daily News on Feb. 27, 2009
Strength and speed are the essential elements of championship success at Pittsford High School.
Walking into their gym, only state title banners are worthy of being hung. So that means football and track and field hold a prominent place in unending Wildcat lore. Nothing else.
According to the school records on the wall basketball is one their varsity sports, but names like Bob Clement and Bruce Caswell echo throughout the entire community, names that stand for the knock-your-helmet-off football tradition and the blazing state championship speeds on the track that propelled Pittsford to greatness in the 90s.
A greatness worth remembering, a greatness that is still talked about today.
A greatness that the 2008-09 edition of the Wildcats basketball team is nearing — with similar strength and speed and crowning character to tie it all together.
Heading into tonight’s road contest at Tekonsha the Wildcats have played 16 games. Since early December Pittsford has shown it is home to one of the area’s top talents, junior forward Garet Lee, it has proven worthy of being called SCAA Champs with its 12-0 mark in SCAA East clashes and it has not lost once and the prospect of losing is far from the minds of coaches and players.
Not a single person associated with the team is starving for attention though or even putting much stock into the possibility and increasing probability of going 20-0. There are more important things to worry about they say: the next day’s weight lifting regimen for example, or Class C districts where they will butt heads with the likes of Hudson, Addison and Hanover-Horton in a few weeks.
But with just eight days until the end of the regular season, an unthinkable proposition looms and suddenly fans with Pittsford basketball t-shirts are easier to spot and a school other than Hillsdale has stolen a bit of the area’s high school hoops spotlight.
As a coach you can’t decide how tall your players are, but you can help determine how strong, quick and smart they become. Mike Burger knows this well and the fifth-year Wildcats head coach doesn’t ask his players if they’d like to lift weights, he has them lift all season long because he figures they’d like to win.
“Weightlifting is just part of your schedule and we believe it can help all of our athletes here at Pittsford,” he said. “Michael Jordan lifted weights and that worked out all right, so why shouldn’t we.”
Lee, an all-league quarterback, has gained more than 30 pounds in the last year and he said he absolutely loves drawing contact and watching opponents react.
“You can just tell (other teams) don’t want to be as physical, they’re not tougher than you and you can just take over on them at times. It’s just a good feeling,” Lee said. “Coach has helped us a lot with getting bigger, faster, stronger and it really helps with every sport. It’s nice to have a coach with that mentality because that bumps you up a lot.”
Teams like Hillsdale Academy, who doesn’t even have a football team, have trouble going blow-for-blow with a team made up of year-round weight training athletes, but it takes more than just strength to go 16-0 in high school hoops and that’s where the rest of Burger’s ideals play in.
He preaches defense and rebounding above all else and admits that if you do both of those well transition points should soon follow.
“We also stress taking care of the ball, making free throws and getting offensive rebounds. I don’t care about anything fancy, as you could probably see in watching us practice.”
Senior Clark Pelham said it has taken hours of dedication to become good enough at defense and rebounding to make everything fall into place, but no one questions all of the extra work because the results speak for themselves.
Pelham also said what makes Burger such a “player’s coach” when it comes to talking Xs and Os is that he harbors enough trust in them to let them “just play basketball” at times, a foreign thought to some highly-structured programs.
“He pushes us to the limit and he gives us our breaks too,” Pelham said. “But what I like best is he gives us a set play, but after that’s over we can do what we want.”
A plan and the coaches’ right-hand man
Burger is the kind of guy who yells when he deems it necessary, but he is always teaching, something he said he learned from the late Bill Dunn, whom he played point guard for at Jonesville in the late 1980s.
He said Dunn was one of his most influential mentors, in sports and life, and he would like to think Dunn would be proud of what he’s been able to accomplish it and how he’s done it.
“Hard work and defense were always his motto and he just had a way of finding ways to make you better,” Burger said of Dunn. “Dunn actually talked me into coaching Jr. Pro 5th and 6th graders and that’s how I got into coaching.”
It’s been said that a point guard is the “coach on the court” and nearly 20 years after he was that to Dunn, 5-9 junior Seth Weber has really become that player for him.
As a sophomore he was quiet and unsure, sometimes making a play just a split second too late or not making it at all. But not this year. He leads the Wildcats in assists, has hit several momentum-shifting 3-pointers this season and has brought a sense of calm to his teammates in tense situations.
His progression has not gone unnoticed.
“Seth has really stepped up into a leadership role this season. He is a big reason we are where we are,” Burger said. “He has the ability to handle the ball and criticism well and he does a lot of the same things I would do on the floor if I were out there. There’s a constant line of communication between him and I and we’re usually on the same page.”
The center piece
Garet Lee regularly puts up 20 points and/or 20 rebounds, but he’s not your typical star player, talking about winning, but always chasing numbers and achievements. He really just wants to win.
Waldron head coach Mark Long called Lee “the most selfless dominant player he’s seen in a long time” earlier this season after his Spartans became another victim.
Considering Lee is second on the team in assists and often seen leading the fast break, that’s hard to argue.
“As long as we win it’s always fun for me. I don’t care about stats, I don’t care about anything but winning,” the 6-1, 185 pound Lee said. “I hate losing, I’ve never liked losing and I really don’t want to lose this year, unless we play our best and we just got out-played.”
He showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore and finished 2008 on a tear with back-to-back dominating performance in districts, but that only made him hungrier.
“During the summer we played a lot more than we did the summer before. It was more football oriented in the past but this year we knew we could be pretty good and it’s just that mentality that has helped us a lot this year,” he said.
Burger rarely has to yell at the fundamentally sound Lee, but with teams double and triple-teaming him at times there’s always the danger of frustration setting in. With Lee the frustration did set in once earlier this season, but a lesson was quickly learned.
“There was one game where I got real frustrated with myself and didn’t do too well, so I’ve just been trying to stay calm no matter what,” he said. “I learned quite a bit from that experience and it didn’t work out very well and I didn’t like it very much.”
“I’ve learned to kick it out to other players because they can really make things happen and I think we’ve had six different leading scorers this year so it’s kind of nice to know that if you’re not having a good day, someone else will probably have one.”
A star-filled sky
Lee is dead-on with that statement, as there are facts to back him up.
Pelham, an all-league offensive lineman, doubles as a deep threat who can score between 18-30 points on a given night while sometimes shooting better than 50 percent from beyond the arc.
He doesn’t look like a basketball player, but as opposing coaches will tell you he certainly is one.
“I used to surprise some people, but now after a few years everybody knows. Hillsdale Academy’s coach (Max Millers) was talking to Seth Weber’s dad the other night and he told him that his main goal was to shut me down,” Pelham said. “They did that (holding him to just one point), but we still won by 20.”
Then there’s senior Corey Gamble who Lee calls one of the best, most committed defenders in the league. Teammates and coaches attest that Gamble often looked to score, score, score at some points last season, but he has changed his tune, yet is still a threat to attack the basket or step back for a jumper.
Coupled with a pair of promising sophomores in center Brandon Williams and guard Wes Smith, depth is not an issue. Especially when some teams don’t even give the Wildcats due credit in that area.
“I didn’t even know who that Smith guy was and all of a sudden he came in and knocked down two 3-pointers,” Hillsdale Academy head coach Max Miller said. “Now I know who he is.”
And if someone needs a breather or foul-trouble is of a concern, senior co-captain Zac Vanlerberg jumps up to provided instant energy and ample doses of high-intensity on-the-ball defense or long-range proficiency.
“He would be a starter on most teams in our league, but he is just so valuable for us because he is reliable at all five spots and does whatever you ask of him,” Burger said.
But sports is about more than just the final scores and easily forgotten game-to-game achievements, it is about the relationships built between teammates and coaches.
That is precisely why junior Brad Beach, a guy who seldom sees the court in close contests, is so important.
“He’s just hysterical and says some of the most random things, but they are hilarious. Sometimes it will be kind of serious and he’ll make us laugh or on the bus rides home we’re laughing the whole because of some of the things he says,” Lee said. “He sometimes will be like ‘C’mon guys, get ahead just a few more points, so that way I can get in and get off the bench!’ He just lightens the mood and is the clown of the team.”
At the end of the road…
Now on the cusp of an amazing distinction, the first undefeated boys basketball team at a school that has won just six district championships all time, the idea of perfection is a fascinating one to the Wildcats, but not one they’re spending much time worrying about.
“Yeah 20-0 would be nice and we’ve talked about it a little bit, but it wasn’t one of our goals, winning the league was,” Burger said. “An undefeated season would probably leave a mark, but I don’t know how it compares to state titles we’ve won and stuff like that. It would just be a tremendous achievement.”
Pelham echoed those sentiments.
“We wanted to win the league and we did that and now we can try and go undefeated, but if we lose one game it won’t ruin anything. We want to win districts,” he said. “I knew we’d be a good team, but I figured we’d have one or two losses by now.”
Only road games at Tekonsha and Battle Creek St. Phil and home games with North Adams-Jerome and Hudson stand in the way of history.
Most of the players guard themselves from looking past the next day at practice or the next game, thanks in part to Burger’s ways, but Lee for one knows that something incomparably special has been taking place.
“It has been a lot of fun especially since this has always been a football and track school. It could very well not happen again for a very, very long time, if not ever,” he said. “It’s been exciting and I know it wasn’t one of our goals from the beginning…but after beating Lenawee Christian I think we realized we had something going and could do something special this year — not just win a league title, but do something that could never be forgotten at this school.”