Quick — how many active girls basketball coaches are members of the 500-win club?
If you guessed four, you would have been correct a week ago. Now, the exlusive club of Luann Grybowski (Neshannock), Ray Bartha (Apollo-Ridge), Dana Petruska (Mars) and Molly Rottmann (North Catholic) has welcomed a fifth member in Shady Side Academy coach Jonna Burke, who reached the milestone via the Bulldogs’ 66-34 win in their opening game of section play Tuesday.
Not only did the win fittingly come on Shady Side’s home court, but it also came against Bartha and Apollo-Ridge in a battle of coaches with more than 1,000 combined victories.
Of course, Burke is much more than just an accomplished coach. As a player at Bethel Park High School — then known as Jonna Huemrich — she was a dominant force in the paint who averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in both her junior and senior seasons. She graduated in 1990 as the Black Hawks’ all-time leading scorer with 1,625 points and was inducted to the WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2010.
After moving on to Pitt, Burke earned Big East Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman and All-America honors as a senior, finishing her college career with 1,807 points, 954 rebounds and 224 steals. At the time of her graduation, she ranked among the top 10 players in school history in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
Following her playing career, Burke immediately transitioned to coaching, taking her first job as Butler’s head coach at only 22 years old. The Golden Tornado won only five games in her debut season and missed the playoffs two out of her first three years, but Burke’s teams haven’t missed the postseason since in 24 tries — five at Butler, 18 at Bethel Park and last year at Shady Side. And with the Bulldogs now looking like a legitimate title contender in Class 3A, Burke may not be finished adding to her legendary resume just yet.
The Pittsburgh Union Progress recently caught up with Burke to reflect on her playing and coaching journey and discuss what the future holds for one of Western Pa.’s all-time greats.
Q: How did the feeling of win No. 500 compare to win No. 1?
A: It’s funny how everybody is asking me that — “How does it feel?” The best thing I can say is that, first of all, it’s 28 years, so it’s a long time. I’ve been doing it for over half my life. I’ve been around a long time, so I feel lucky. I feel like I’ve been surrounded by really good people and great kids, and I’ve been blessed to be in the situations I’ve been in with the kids I’ve been able to coach. I feel like it’s really less about me and more about the people I’ve been fortunate enough to coach.
Q: Do you still remember getting your first win?
A: My husband started doing some digging to find out when that first win was. He contacted some people at the Butler Eagle, and they found it to be at some point in a holiday tournament in 1995. I’d like to tell you that I really remember it and it was amazing and I was so happy, but I honestly don’t really remember it. I remember the team, I remember the kids, and I remember we only won five games that season. Compared to the first one, I guess 500 is better. Just because it’s so much later and I’m more established in my career. It’s an accumulation of work over the years.
Q: Where does it rank compared to winning a WPIAL title and being inducted to the WPIAL Hall of Fame?
A: Winning a WPIAL title is always going to take precedence to me. Winning a championship, be it a WPIAL — and I know it’s a district championship, not a state championship, but in Western Pa., a WPIAL championship is a big deal. That’s always going to be the No. 1 accomplishment, the pinnacle. Besides the other things that don’t show up, like the relationships you build with the kids. I would say winning No. 500 is probably more important than being in the Hall of Fame, only because it’s a compilation of all the kids and all the relationships you’ve built.
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself one day winning 500 games as a coach?
A: Not at all. I was very much in the moment. I was 22 years old when I got hired. I was very green. I wasn’t much older than the kids I was coaching. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I just knew I loved basketball, I was done playing, and I wanted to stay with it. Really, I’m not sure now what I liked better. Did I like playing better or do I like coaching better? Playing will probably always win, but I’ve been coaching so much longer than I played.
Q: Do you still play pickup basketball every now and then?
A: I haven’t for a really long time. The most I’ll do is shoot around a little bit and play some 1-on-1 with my son in the back.
Q: What do you think was the hardest part about making it to No. 500?
A: I think the hardest part is losing games. There have been days and nights after you lose a game, and there’s so much — for me, there’s so much second guessing and beating yourself up and thinking, “Why didn’t we try this? Why didn’t I change that? Why didn’t we do this?” That’s hard. I hate losing more than I like winning. Losing games takes a toll on me, because I’m very hard on myself. I feel like when we win games, it’s because the kids played great. When we lose games, it’s all my fault.
Q: How did you manage to make it this far without letting all the naysayers, doubters and detractors tear you down?
A: You know what, I have to be really honest about that. I have to say that I have been really fortunate over the years to not have that many issues. That’s something that a lot of people will talk about, like, “How do you deal with parents?” And I’ve been really lucky in that regard. I have had them. But I think that’s part of how I made it so far, because I haven’t had a lot of issues for whatever reason. I think really the heart of it is, if you treat kids well and you care about them, then I think even though they all can’t play the same amount of time, they’re not upset with you because they know you care about them. And I care about them.
Q: How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
A: I guess it’s just going to come back to the kids. I’m a kid-focused, kid-centered, player-centered coach. I don’t think that we can ever achieve much as a group if we don’t care about each other, if we don’t treat each other well, if we don’t have that basic mutual respect for each other and be good teammates. And from there, I can worry about X’s and O’s. But I think the foundation has to be laid with every team. Each year, we’re going to work on being teammates, we’re going to work on caring about each other, then we can build out from that. I always feel like we have to have a foundation of respect and trust.
Q: Do you have a number of set plays you like to run, or do you prefer to just let the players operate on their own?
A: I think one thing I’ve definitely learned over the years is that, for me anyway, you have to be really flexible in dealing with the personnel that you have. Some years you’re small and quick, some years you’re bigger and slower. First and foremost, for me, we always have to be able to be a good defensive team. So I always start there — defense and rebounds. You can always control those things. You might not always be the best shooting team, you might not always have the strength inside. So that’s always first for me.
Offensively, I have a playbook of hundreds of plays, and we pick and choose the ones that are going to put our personnel in the best position to score. That might be more guard-oriented one year, that might be more forward-oriented, but I’ve learned that the playbook changes for me from year to year. I don’t have a system. I’m not a system coach as much as a defensive-minded coach, and then we adjust offensively to the personnel.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of your coaching journey so far?
A: Absolutely the most rewarding part are the relationships that I’ve made over the years. Kids last night — I still call them kids — they came to the game last night, some kids from Butler. When I get to go to a wedding for one of my players. When one of them reaches out to me and says, “Hey, do you want to go to lunch?” The people and the kids that I’ve coached over the years who have kept in touch with me, the memories that we’ve made — that’s the best part of being a coach, to me. I love winning, and that is a byproduct, and I love being competitive, and this gives me an outlet for that. I love that part of it, but by far the best part of it is the kids and the relationships and the people I’ve gotten to know over all the years.
The wins and losses get foggy over the years, but the relationships and the long lasting ones, they mean the most to me.
Q: If you could go back to the beginning of your coaching career and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
A: I would tell myself to not stress out as much as I did. I put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning, and I think it was because I was so young and I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t very confident yet in being a coach. So I would tell myself to trust myself a little bit more and to relax a little bit more.
Q: Is there any message you’d like to give to the young women out there who hope to one day become a successful coach like yourself?
A: I would tell them the most important thing that you can do with a new team is to get to know the kids and let them know that you care about them. From there, they’ll listen to you and they’ll work for you, if they know you care about them. To me, you have to lay that foundation and put that work in getting to know the kids. Also, put time in. You have to put the work in. Planning practices, watching film. It’s a lot of work. You can’t do it half. If you expect to have success, you have to put in all the necessary time. But before that, you’ve got to get to your kids and build a relationship with them.