Building a winner

GLENDALE – As the Hancock Bulldogs were ramping up for their state title run in hockey, a former Hancock native was well into making a run of his own. Earlier this month, Shane Burcar joined the Michigan Tech Huskies hockey team and former Huskies’ defenseman John Scott as locals who participated in big games in the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

Burcar led the Mesa High School Jackrabbits to a win over the Sunnyslope High School Vikings, 51-48, for the Division I boys basketball state title, the 14th in school history, with a record of 26-4. A 1991 graduate of Hancock Central High School, Burcar has spent the last 10 years building up the Jackrabbits program back up as head coach after spending some time there as the assistant.

Burcar, who spent his formative years in Chassell, where he fell in love with the game while following the 1985 Panthers team before moving to Hancock Central High for his freshman year, learned a young age that defense is a key place to start when building a sustainable basketball program.

“I played for Doug Heinonen,” said Burcar. “He emphasized defense. We played some zone and we played some man. As a young player, he always put me on the best player. I think he tried to do that so that I would play some defense.”

Burcar, who has been named the ADA D1 Coach of the Year for the second straight season, also credits Tom Izzo and Tom Bennett for helping him hone his defensive prowess. Bennett is a Hall of Fame coach for junior college from Indiana.

Burcar has meshed his mentors’ styles to create something special at Mesa.

“We play fast,” said Burcar. “We play in your face, passing lanes, ball pressure. When we get the ball, we’re gone. At the same time, we can play half court if we have to. We want to be the aggressor.”

Burcar has instilled more than the defensive mentality from his youth into his players.

“I was lucky as a kid to have good youth coaches and high school coaches and teammates,” said Burcar. “It was never about who scored the most points or had the most hits, it was always about your teammates and trying to win the game.

“I know we have created that culture. We weren’t the most talented team, but we were probably the toughest team and the guys that played as a team the most.”

Mesa has a population of 457,587, and six high schools, of which Mesa is the second-largest public school in the entire state; but, at least in the area Burcar calls home, it feels more like Hancock than Detroit. He can’t even walk into a local market without being reminded of home.

“It is a small-town environment,” said Burcar. “It’s the oldest school in Mesa. We have a sign in our locker room that says ‘Tradition never graduates.’

“It reminds me of back home, really. If they see you at the grocery store, they say, ‘Hey, good luck tonight coach,’ and stuff like that. Everybody knows you.”

Mesa High School has an enrollment of 3,330, but one would not know that from the way the students and community members carry themselves. In fact, they have even set up a support group for graduates to help each other find jobs.

Another similarity between the Jackrabbits alumni and the Bulldogs alumni is the intense support former Jackrabbits offer to current athletes. Of course, with alumni staying close to where they went to school, their children then come through the same ranks.

“Half of the 1988 team was there [at the championship game],” said Burcar. “Those kids are coming through our school right now. It’s just a retread of kids.

“The other thing about high school that I really like is that you are a positive influence in their lives,” said Burcar. “Now that I have been there 10 years, I’m getting guys’ kids coming through camps now. I am kind of reaping the hard work that I have done.”

Burcar has worked with the group of kids he won this state title with from the time those kids first started playing organized ball 10 years ago.

“I have been here 10 years and I have been watching these guys play since they were in second grade,” said Burcar. “This group was really special to me. I have followed them all the way through.”

Coming into the state tournament, Burcar’s Jackrabbits were the No. 2 seed out of 24 total teams. Because they were the second seed, Mesa had a first round bye, as did each of the top eight seeds.

To make things difficult, the top-seeded team came into the tournament on a 70-game winning streak. If that wasn’t enough, the Jackrabbits’ top player, Darius Goudeau, went down to a knee injury in practice before their first tournament game.

How did the team respond? They mercied their opponent.

“If you get up 30 points, you have a running clock in the fourth quarter,” said Burcar. “With 5:30 to go, we are up 31 points. Our guys just stepped up. They all played great.”

In their next matchup, the Jackrabbits played a school, St. Mary’s, that was the equivalent of Bloomfield Hills-Cranbrook-Kingswood in Michigan hockey. Graduates of St. Mary’s included NBA players Jerryd Bayless and Channing Frye. The Jackrabbits needed a strong second half to take them down after trailing by seven at half.

Using their defense-first mentality, the Jackrabbits defeated Basha 50-35 in a game they led 21-10 at the half to get to the championship game. They very nearly played another team coached by a former Hancock native, Jay Caserio, in Gilbert High School, but the Tigers lost in their semifinal.

While winning a state championship was the ultimate goal for 2015-16, work has already begun on the 2016-17 campaign.

“We won it this year, but now we are gearing up to the 2016-17 season,” said Burcar. “We are in offseason workouts right now. We had three weeks off, and it’s time to move forward now.”

Unlike at Hancock, basketball in Arizona is an 11-month commitment. July is the lone month where the athletes have a break. Prior to the season, the players will take part in club basketball. After the high school season is over, the kids take part in what Burcar calls “basketball class” where skills and strength are the focus.

The small-town atmosphere has been enough to keep Burcar’s inner fire going throughout his 18 years coaching basketball in Arizona.

“I have had opportunities to move on,” said Burcar. “I just haven’t been able to. I just love it. I love my job. I just love the community.”

Of course, his family is big part of that decision as well. He and his wife Julie have a daughter Bella, 8, a son, Brisson, 5, and 20-month-old twins Brooklyn and Bennett. In fact, Burcar is finding himself spending part of his offseason coaching Brooklyn’s softball team and Bennett’s coach-pitch baseball squad.