DENVER — It was just the other day when Mike Burkett, the girls basketball coach who led St. Mary’s to its first state title Saturday, also led a chorus of teenagers in rapping to Drake — while driving the team bus.
Seniors like Mary Cummings thought it was pretty funny, as you can imagine. She still laughs about it, how a coach in his 19th year at the same school would give a bus full of girls a gift they’re never going to forget.
The feeling’s mutual. See, how it works at St. Mary’s — the Class 3A champs after a wild-and-crazy 44-38 triumph over Colorado Springs Christian School — is as simple as a give-and-go. For Burkett, who took over the program in 1999 after it stumbled through a five-win season, it’s about loving his roster of girls with everything he has, even if it threatens his vocal cords and reputation, with the understanding his team will give the same in return. That’s why the tears poured out after Colorado Springs Christian led both teams in a group prayer at the final horn, why all four of the Pirates I spoke with said, in some form or another, the huge, sweet trophy they lugged to his bus is for “Coach Mike.”
They flat-out love the guy — and felt the same way long before St. Mary’s withstood a fantastic CSCS squad and star forward Megan Engesser, who hit the 20-point mark, inside DU’s Hamilton Gym.
“And he’s an amazing bus driver,” sophomore guard Josephine Howery added.
They sang, rapped and danced all the way home, an hour south with Saturday traffic, after senior captain Makenna Bodette had 15 points and 12 rebounds and Howery tossed in 14 points. And Coach Mike’s reaction to winning a state title — after, in his words, the Pirates had taken every other place (except first) at the state tournament?
“It’s probably like the birth of a child,” Burkett said.
OK, so I had to find his son after that one.
Didn’t have to go far.
“I do feel kind of slighted hearing that,” joked Kyle Burkett, an assistant coach on the St. Mary’s sideline, alongside his father, for the past 13 years.
Before we go any further, a word about CSCS: same time, same place, next year? Because there wasn’t a more talented team in the Class 3A field than St. Mary’s (26-1) and CSCS (25-4), and both are scheduled to return key players (like Engesser and St. Mary’s Seneca Hackley) in 2018-19. It bumped CSCS off the rails when Megan Engesser drew her third foul in just the second quarter. She didn't know she had two. Her coach and father, Mark Engesser, called for officials to add a scoreboard that shows personal fouls.
“You look up there and you have no idea who the foul’s on,” he said.
It’s rough, losing the state final, and CSCS has wiped these sour kind of tears two years in a row. Last year it was Lamar who felled the Lions here, and that so-close feeling doesn’t get easier — especially in the case of Engesser, who’s coached the four seniors from CSCS since they were sixth- and seventh-graders. “It’s just hard to see that silver lining today,” he said.
These things are about the players, always, but there’s a soft spot in my heart for exceptional high school coaches who are being forced to grow thick skin. That soft spot grows another layer each time I hear the unfiltered madness belting out from the aluminum bleachers. Yelling at the refs. Screaming at the coach. Is it too much to ask some parents to mature to the level of their kids?
Now back to the champs.
“We’ve been working for this since we were freshmen,” said Cummings, a senior, and then she tossed out that phrase again — “this is a sisterhood.” The patriarch of this St. Mary’s sisterhood implemented a new and more patient half-court offense this season, sings, drives the bus and often delegates to the assistant coaches who double as his closest friends.
Assistant coach Don Mersman, in his 17th season, was the best man in Coach Mike’s wedding. Sean Mersman is Don’s son, in his sixth season. Phil Doering has been there since 1999. And then there’s his son, Kyle Burkett, who now has competition for Best Moment of Dad’s Life.
“I can’t think of a man who deserves this moment more than him,” Kyle said.
Like the birth of a child, if there were 12 at the same time, all listening to Dad rap with Drake.