Neshannock’s Burkes learning
to shed any doubt in his game
By Joe Simon
New Castle News
He was in the midst of a breakout year, but Neshannock High coach John Corey caught Ernie Burkes doubting himself.
Burkes, just a sophomore, was one of the first players off the bench last year, and he came back this season with improvements in every area of his game. But still, Corey recognized a bit of doubt in Burkes’ face.
“Shooting the basketball, he’s a perfectionist,” Corey said. “And the moment he feels himself not shooting it well, it seems like he’s always trying to change (his shot). And it was like two or three weeks after the season started, and my message to him was, ‘If Drew Brees throws an interception, he doesn’t change the way he throws the football. He’s not going to second-guess himself.’
“So I told (Ernie) he just has to keep going. His form is nearly perfect. It’s about getting back to those roots.”
Whatever doubt entered Burkes’ mind was quickly erased.
He leads Lawrence County with a 21.2 points-per-game average. He carried the Lancers for long stretches during a must-win WPIAL Section 2-AA victory over Laurel last Friday, scoring 28 points. The win, coupled with a Mohawk loss, sent Neshannock to the playoffs.
That performance, along with a 24-point outing in a loss to Mohawk earlier in the week, earned him Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
With how Burkes has played this year, it seemed like only a matter of time before the smooth-shooting, light-footed point guard earned such an award. His quickness and ball-handling skills are remarkable, and his shooting isn’t far behind. He’s second in the county in 3-pointers (51) and free-throw percentage (82.7).
Corey said Burkes, whose brothers were both athletic stars at Union High, has a lot of natural talent, but the development of those skills are what impresses the fourth-year coach.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s one of the most skilled guys in the area — with his ball-handling ability, his shooting ability and his speed,” Corey said. “And it didn’t just happen. This is a kid who puts in countless hours — extra time, besides practice — to be as good as he is. He’s got to keep it up, and he’s going to be a very special player for the next couple years.”
The experience he earned last year helped him understand the level at which he had to play in order to be successful, Burkes said. He spent the offseason with Corey and other area coaches refining his game. Whether it was coming to the gym after he finished with football practice (Burkes is a three-sport athlete) or chasing his dog around the yard, he constantly was finding ways to get better.
“You’ve got to learn to be quick to catch her,” he said of the family dog, Gracie, a Yorkie. “She’s nuts.”
Gracie was of no help with his early-season struggles though.
Burkes said he would get down on himself a lot if he missed a shot or had an off game. His confidence was wavering a bit before he spoke with his dad, Bob Burkes, an assistant coach and co-athletic director at Neshannock, and Corey. He quickly realized a few solutions to his problem.
“Not every shot is going to go in, as my dad always tells me,” Ernie said. “You just have to keep shooting.
“You have to take better shots, too, if you’re missing some shots. You can’t keep doing what you’re doing. You have to find new shots. Maybe your 3-ball is not on, so you have to hit a crossover jumper. Maybe that’s your shot for the day. You can’t just keep shooting 3s.”
Burkes’ shot Friday against Laurel, a victory that sent Neshannock to the playoffs, was from the free throw line. He made 17 of 19 from the charity stripe and 10 in the final quarter to help the Lancers (6-6 section, 11-10 overall) secure the final playoff spot in the section.
“He took control of the game,” Corey said. “It’s nice that you see him put in as much time in as he does, and then things like that happen. And we expect a lot of those things to happen as time goes by.”
KNOWN FOR: Burkes was a solid sixth man for the Lancers last year, but he’s become one of the county’s elite players this season. He’s averaging a county-best 21.2 points per game and also dishes out 4.2 assists per contest.
PARENTS: Bob and Marianne Burkes.
FAVORITE PRO PLAYER AND WHY: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics — “Just because of how improved from year to year, and the stuff he does is incredible. His passes are insane.”
FAVORITE PRO TEAM AND WHY: Boston Celtics “They’ve always been my team. My brothers loved them. Larry Bird — I’ve always loved him.”
FUTURE PLANS: Burkes said he’s interested in playing basketball in college and wants to attend medical school.