Bearcats partying like it’s 1995

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Burlingame finished the regular season with a 20-2 record, reaching a state tournament for the first time since 1995. The Bearcats hadn’t won 20 games in a season since 1995-96.

The last time Burlingame’s boys basketball team played in a state tournament, Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” was a top-10 hit, “Seinfeld” was No. 2 in the TV ratings (behind “E.R.”) and “Seven” was a revelation on the big screen.

Twenty-two years. It’s been a long drought for the Bearcats, whose last appearance at state was in 1995. The players on the current team were several years away from being born, virtually nobody had any clue what the Internet was, and Hootie and the Blowfish was the most popular band on the planet.

Burlingame hadn’t been to a state tournament since 1950 before that season, so advancing to the Class 2A tournament in Manhattan was special. I remember it well because I was a freshman at Kansas State.

While most of the town drove the 70 miles from Burlingame to the Little Apple, my roommate Steve, also a BHS alumnus, and father walked from Marlatt Hall to Bramlage Coliseum. We arrived early enough to catch most of the opening game that day, which pitted No. 1 seed Frankfort against No. 8 seed Inman, both traditional state powers.

That game was memorable for several reasons. For starters, Inman pulled off a stunning upset, rolling past the Wildcats 78-65. The most memorable thing about that game was an athletic guard named Greg Friesen, who willed his team to the win with 37 points. Time and time again, Friesen slashed through Frankfort’s defense for short jumpers and layups.

Frankfort had a great player of its own, an all-state guard who scored 28 points on an array of floaters, long jumpers and drives to the basket. I remember watching that senior walk off the court with his head down, his high school career over much sooner than he expected.

Little did I know that I’d meet that Frankfort player in, of all places, Centre, at the end of the 2007 season. An assistant coach introduced him to me after Burlingame’s 70-65 loss to White City in a regional semifinal game. I remember talking to him about that 1995 game. All these years later, he still hasn’t watched tape of that loss to Inman.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m talking about Creighton Winters, the longtime coach who took over the program in 2005, battled through the occasional lean year and has put together perhaps the best team in school history in 2016-17.

For the longest time in Burlingame, the biggest problem was that a coach wouldn’t stick around. It’s impossible to build a program when you don’t have consistency.

About the time Winters started at BHS, the youth programs in Burlingame finally had traction. A few years later, a group of boys began playing basketball together. By the time they got to junior high, they simply didn’t lose. By the time they got to high school, Burlingame was ready to build a program. A few years later, those boys were ranked among the top five teams in Class 1A-Division I.

Going into the final weeks of the season, Burlingame appeared to be the favorite to win a tough sub-state in Olpe. The Bearcats were hot after losing in the Lyon County League tournament, using a close loss to Lebo to fuel a dominant second half of the season.

Then, of course, came a devastating injury when their starting point guard suffered a torn ACL in the final game of the regular season. I’d seen the look on Winters’ face after the game before, back in 1995 in Manhattan.

Many, including myself, felt the injury was going to cost Burlingame its first state tournament bid in decades. Fortunately, we were wrong. The Bearcats, a tough, gritty group, put on an impressive display of teamwork in sub-state, crushing a dangerous Southern Coffey County team and smothering a Lebo team with 10 seniors to end the long drought.

The community finally got a taste of success during the past two football seasons with trips to the Eight-Man I semifinals. Now, it gets another bite in the form of a three-hour drive to Hays for a state tournament.

Burlingame has ended a number of droughts in the last few years, including trips to the state semifinals in football, league titles in football and basketball, and a trip to a state basketball tournament. It’s about time another one comes to an end: winning a game at state, something the Bearcats have never done.

The last time Burlingame played in a state tournament, it played a Berean Academy team that had virtually no tradition. In the 22 years since, the Warriors have been to several state tournaments and won a championship in 2010. Let’s hope this year kick-starts a similar run for the Bearcats.

Webb: Because they’re winners, Bearcats will learn from loss

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Burlingame finished the 2016 season at 11-1 and in the state semifinals for the second straight year. The Bearcats should be a state title contender next season.

There are few redeeming qualities about a loss. It stings. It makes you angry. It makes you sad. It can be devastating, especially when it ends your season and you have a four-hour bus ride home to think about it.

I can only imagine how Burlingame’s football team felt Friday night in Osborne as virtually nothing went right in the final game of a season in which virtually everything went right.

It reminded me of arguably Burlingame’s best team in the two decades leading up to this current group’s wildly successful run that has included back-to-back Lyon County League and district championships and trips to the Eight-Man I semifinals.

In 1991, the Bearcats had a team that many believed could make a deep run in the playoffs. Six games into the season, much of that hope had faded during a 2-4 start (keep in mind that the LCL was brutal in the early 1990s, featuring traditional powers Olpe, Waverly and Lebo).

By the time October rolled around, few had Burlingame getting through a district that included a good Alma-Wabaunsee team. The Bearcats rolled past Marais des Cygnes Valley and Lyndon to reach the .500 mark and set up a showdown in Alma for a trip to the playoffs.

That game, in late October, is one of the most memorable at Burlingame, partly because it was played during a snowstorm. My memories of that game include giant space heaters on the sideline, one of our assistant coaches (I’m talking about you, John Lujano) pacing the sideline in a short-sleeve shirt in sub-zero temperatures and a field on which only the yard lines were cleared.

Time and time again, a player broke into the clear, only to slip and fall on several inches of ice inside the yard lines. On one of the few times a player didn’t slip, Brandon Masters found just enough traction to burst up the middle and into the end zone in double overtime to clinch a playoff bid.

The weather was so awful that week that our opening-round game was postponed until a week later on a Saturday night. Awaiting Burlingame in the first round: Big, bad Waverly, a team that hammered the Bearcats during the regular season.

Memories of that game also are vivid. The coaching staff made a great decision, moving a bullish, powerful lineman to fullback to counter Waverly’s physical defense. Time and time again, said fullback barreled into linebackers, who bounced off him like pinballs.

Burlingame dominated the game, marching up and down the field with ease. Unfortunately, turnovers and penalties squelched many of those drives. Burlingame had the ball inside the 5 in the closing minute, only to be flagged for three straight holding calls. I also remember that a long field goal as time expired in regulation looked true until curving wide left by a foot.

What I remember the most is how we lost. On fourth-and-goal from the 1 in overtime, Masters bounced off left tackle and dove for the end zone. As the team stats geek, I was watching on the goal line. There is no doubt in my mind he scored. In fact, his upper body, with the ball, was in the end zone. The officials ruled he did not score. Waverly scored two plays later, gutting the team and town.

That was the first time I’d seen many of my classmates cry. Some of the toughest kids I knew were devastated. In many ways, it felt like it set the tone for the next two decades of football.

There aren’t many comparisons between the 1991 and 2016 Bearcats. The former scrapped its way into the playoffs and wasn’t considered a state championship contender. The latter rolled through the regular season like an F5 tornado, cutting a swath through a schedule loaded with playoff teams.

What the teams do have in common is that they brought the community together. Both of these runs, first in the early 1990s and now in the mid-2010s, came after long droughts. Friday Night Lights are no longer dim in Burlingame, they’re illuminating.

The 2016 team had loftier goals than getting back to the state semifinals. They expected to win the school’s first championship since 1972. They fell short, and that’s something they’re going to remember.

Almost all of these kids are back next season, and they’ll learn from this loss, because they’re winners.

 

 

 

Team with a big heart takes a small town to the big time

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Burlingame football field

Burlingame fans lined up down the sideline and filing into the bleachers for Friday’s state semifinal game, the first at Burlingame in more than four decades. Every graduating class from 1958 to 2014 had at last one member at the game.

The drive to Burlingame on Friday was similar to our previous trips back home. As you head into town from the east and the hustle and bustle of Kansas City into the sleepy confines of Small Town, America, the view rarely changes.

Past the city limits, just north of Highway 56, are the remnants of an old café, Jo’s Place, where my wife worked during high school. The old, red brick road covering two blocks of downtown is still there. It’s a road those of us who grew up in Burlingame spent hours on during our youth, circling the main drag after school and on the weekends.

Downtown Burlingame is one of the few areas in town marked by change. Several buildings are gone, including the defunct Osage County Chronicle building where I learned more about writing and newspapers from Kurt Kessinger than I have anywhere during my career as a journalist.

Across the street, the old grocery store and another café, both closed, continue to decay. For years, the town lacked energy.

As we walked from my in-laws’ house across a park on the north side of town, bright lights exploded into the sky, and the roads leading into the Burlingame High parking lot were flooded with red tail lights for blocks to the north and south.

IMG_4631It was quite a sight: Friday Night Lights in Burlingame. Hundreds of people lined up just off the track circling the football field, the stands full of purple and white, electricity in the air. All due to a football team that served as a shot of adrenaline for a community that needs – and deserves – a big winner.

“This is what we wanted, what we hoped we could do,” Robert Hutchins, a senior running back, said after the Bearcats’ loss to Hanover in an Eight-Man Division I semifinal. “It was amazing to see this town like this.”

Until Friday, I assumed the community was in a frenzy because its football team was 11-0, something that hadn’t happened since the 1972 team won the Class 1A state championship. After I met Hutchins, I realized the connection was much deeper than that.

As I walked off the field following Hanover’s 56-32 win in a game that was much closer than the score, I noticed Hutchins taking photos with several friends and classmates. I stopped briefly and said, “Robert, you had a great season. You should be proud.”

Tears welled in eyes already red and weary.

“I’m Ernie Webb,” I said.

“I know. Thank you for those stories you wrote,” he said. “And for that email you sent me.”

That didn’t register. I didn’t remember Hutchins at first, but I said “You’re welcome” and walked away after wishing him luck. Then it hit me: Was this the kid I exchanged emails with when he was an eighth-grader?

I turned around and said, “Robert, are you the one who emailed me after Ms. Day contacted me?”

As it turns out, this was the young man who I emailed several years ago. Twenty years earlier, the late Ms. Day, a wonderful art and science teacher, had been kind to a young man from Missouri who continued to root for his favorite college team despite living among Kansas and Kansas State fans.

Ms. Day contacted me years later and asked me to reach out to a student who needed a little guidance as a Missouri fan in the heart of Kansas. I readily sent him an email, never realizing the impact it had.

Nearly five years later, I introduced Robert to my wife and spoke with him for a few minutes, extremely impressed by his thoughtfulness and gratitude over the email, especially after he’d just finished his high school football career with a loss one game short of the state championship.

At that point, I realized why this community, so desperate for a big winner that at least one member of every graduating class from 1958 through 2015 was in the bleachers, loved this team so much: not only were these guys great football players, they were fine young men, many of whom will be back next season to make another run at the school’s first state title in 43 years.

The Bearcats lost on Friday night, but this team will always be a champion in the eyes of Burlingame.