Deer Lakes has been the cardiac kids of this postseason, winning overtime thrillers in the WPIAL Class 3A quarterfinals and semifinals to put the team in position to win a second consecutive title.

That’s not to say the frantic wins haven’t taken a toll on the top-seeded Lancers.

“I think my heart and my hairline are both in bad shape,” coach Albie Fletcher said with a laugh.

Fletcher might want to be careful, though, because the Lancers might be headed for another nail-biter in the title game.

A year after Deer Lakes won its first title, its championship opponent, a familiar one at that, will be looking to do the same. Section rival and No. 11 seed Burrell (16-8) will shoot for its first title when the Bucs take on Deer Lakes (20-4) for the title at 5 p.m. Friday at Petersen Events Center.

Burrell, the only double-digit seed to reach the semifinals in any classification, hopes the third time’s a charm, not only in trying to beat Deer Lakes but also in winning the title. The Bucs, who lost to the Lancers twice in the regular season, came up short in their previous championship trips in 1979 and 2013.

“It would mean everything to be the only team that’s been successful enough to do it,” Burrell coach Mike Fantuzzo said of winning the school’s first championship. “It’s just been a surreal experience for these guys, and it’s been really positive. We know most people will probably be [picking Deer Lakes], and that just gives us more motivation.”

Fletcher and Fantuzzo are both coaching at their alma maters. Fletcher is a 1993 Deer Lakes graduate and Fantuzzo a 2004 Burrell graduate.

Collin Rodgers made the winning basket with three seconds left to lift Deer Lakes to a 39-38 overtime win against Ellwood City in the WPIAL Class 3A quarterfinals. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After pulling out some narrow wins in last season’s playoffs, Deer Lakes has taken its nail-biting ways to another level this season. In a 39-38 overtime win against Ellwood City in the quarterfinals, Collin Rodgers converted a steal into the winning basket with three seconds left. And against Neshannock in the semifinals, Nate Moore’s basket with 2.9 seconds left in regulation forced overtime and the Lancers went on to claim an 84-73 win. 

“It’s a very resilient group,” said Fletcher, whose team won the Section 3 title. “I keep telling them they are making it a lot harder than it has to be, but that’s playoff basketball. You have to win all styles. In the clutch, they have shown the ability to step their game up and finish it off.”

This will be a contrast of styles, with Deer Lakes liking to push the ball and Burrell preferring to slow it down. Deer Lakes scored one point above its season average when it beat visiting Burrell, 65-43, Jan. 5. Senior guard Billy Schaeffer, the Lancers’ leading scorer (15 points per game) and only returning starter from last season, scored 21 points in a game that saw all five Burrell starters foul out in the fourth quarter. Deer Lakes went 34 of 45 from the free-throw line. The teams then played a lower-scoring game in the rematch Jan. 30 at Burrell, with Deer Lakes pulling out a 51-48 win.

“They’re the polar opposite of us,” Fletcher said. “They want to play slow, control the tempo, and play in the half-court. We want to play in the full-court. It’s a completely different style of basketball, and that makes it difficult.”

Burrell’s Macky Bennis tries to get the ball past Deer Lakes’ Aiden Fletcher, left, and Collin Rodgers during their game Jan. 5 at Deer Lakes. The Lancers claimed a 65-43 win. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Burrell, the third-place finisher in Section 3, has already eliminated three of the top six seeds in the bracket, beating No. 6 Seton LaSalle, 55-50, in the first round; No. 3 Shady Side Academy, 48-44, in the quarterfinals; and No. 2 Mohawk, 51-34, in the semifinals. Senior guard Macky Bennis scored team highs of 23 points against Shady Side Academy and 18 against Mohawk. He leads the Bucs in scoring at 19 points per game. Junior guard Tucker Bitar scored a team-best 21 points against Seton LaSalle.

“When we lost three of five at the end of the regular season, we just weren’t clicking or giving our best effort,” Fantuzzo said. “But ever since then, when they realize each game could be our last, they’ve put in the additional work and have taken things more seriously.”

If Burrell is unable to win its first title, Deer Lakes will certainly be pleased to win its second.

“That would mean everything,” said Fletcher, whose son, Aiden, is a senior starter for the Lancers. “Last year when we did exit interviews, every single kid that came back, they said, ‘We’re going to do it again.’ They had that mindset after last season and they’ve put in a lot of work. For them to do it again, it would be the best.”

Class 5A

Franklin Regional had a miserable finish to last season.

After starting 9-3, the Panthers closed the season with 10 consecutive losses as they went from likely playoff team to finishing in a tie for last place in their section.

What a difference a year makes.

Winner of 12 games in a row, No. 2 Franklin Regional (23-2) will try to become WPIAL champion for the first time when it faces No. 1 Moon (22-3) in the Class 5A championship at 9 p.m. Friday at Petersen Events Center.

Franklin Regional is making its fourth appearance in the championship and first since 2018. Jesse Reed is in his third season as coach. Reed played for a WPIAL title his senior season at Greensburg Central Catholic in 2011 (the Centurions lost to Monessen in the Class 2A final) before going on to play in college at American and then professionally in Luxembourg. After missing out on the playoffs in Reed’s first two seasons, Franklin Regional has made its way to the final behind some excellent defense. The Panthers are allowing only 41.6 points a game in the playoffs and have given up more than 50 points just once in their past nine games.

“It’s been our ability to compete and buy in on the defensive end,” Reed said. “Dudes are buying in to get stops and that gets us out in transition. They’re buying into rebounding, defending, and playing with maximum effort.”

Senior Fin Hutchison is the only Franklin Regional starter whose first name doesn’t begin with a ‘C.’ (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

While you could give Franklin Regional “A” grades for their play in many games this season, their lineup is nearly “straight C’s.” It consists of seniors Cam Rowell, Cooper Rankin, Colin Masten and Fin Hutchinson, and junior Connor Crossey. Rowell, a 6-5 guard-forward, leads the team in scoring with 18.3 points per game.

“Jesse Reed is a great guy, a great coach. They’ve got two really good players in Rankin and Rowell. We’ll let the film digest and get back at it tomorrow,” Moon coach Gino Palmosina said following his team’s semifinal triumph. Palmosina, who is in his second season, is trying to win his second title. He guided Bishop Canevin to WPIAL and PIAA Class 1A titles in 2022.

Moon is playing in the final for the first time since 2019. The Tigers have won four titles, their last coming in 2017. The Tigers have won 10 consecutive games since a one-point loss to Class 4A finalist Hampton, and they boast one of the area’s top talents in 6-foot-5 senior guard Elijah Guillory. Guillory averages 20.6 points per game and knocked down seven 3-pointers among his 39 points in Monday’s 67-65 semifinal win against Thomas Jefferson. A day later, Guillory committed to Youngstown State.

“Unbelievable,” Palmosina said of Guillory’s performance Monday. “He’s the best player in the area. He’s a Division I basketball player. It wasn’t shocking to me that he played the way he did.”

Moon’s Elijah Guillory scored 39 points in a WPIAL Class 5A semifinal win against Thomas Jefferson and leads the Tigers in scoring on the season with 20.6 points per game. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Slowing down Guillory will undoubtedly be a major focus for Franklin Regional defensively.

“He’s an elite shot maker,” Reed said. “The difficulty on his shots are pretty incredible. It’s fun to watch. He’s a problem on his own, but the rest of the guys are great, as well.”

Guillory’s supporting cast is tall and talented. Aiden Reesman is a 6-4 senior guard-forward who made the winning free throws in the final seconds against Thomas Jefferson. Another top player is 6-5 senior guard-forward Michael Santicola.

When Reed became Franklin Regional’s coach in 2021, he said he saw a group of freshmen and sophomores that had the potential to do some big things in their careers. And they have the opportunity to do just that Friday when they try to win the program its first title.

“It would mean the world,” Reed said. “Franklin has never done it. To be able to do it with this group that has bought in from Day 1, it would be tremendous. It’s something we all dream of growing up. I got to experience this as a player, and this is something this group will never forget.”

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Brad Everett

Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at