Mighty mite: Burkholder growth pushed Newark to district championship
NEWARK ― Senior point guard Grant Burkholder began his Newark career as a spot up, 3-point shooter.
He ended it scoring from every angle possible, and at 5-foot-9, he had to, as talented Central District teams started to put much taller players on him.
Burkholder's game evolved and so did the Wildcats, as he drove an undersized, 11th-seeded team to an unexpected Division I district championship.
Finishing among Newark's all-time leaders in several categories, he is The Advocate Boys Basketball Player of the Year, after averaging 16 points and two assists per game for a well-balanced team that had two other double figure scorers. He was first-team All-OCC-Buckeye Division, second-team All-Central District and Special Mention All-Ohio.
"I wanted to make sure we won something during my time here, and we finally did," said Burkholder, who finished just shy of 1,000 points at 992. "I love being the underdog more than the favorite, because you have nothing to lose. Having that schedule and going through those losses, it was a great time for lessons learned. What can we do better against those type of teams?"
Without a big man, the Wildcats were smaller than most teams on a power-packed schedule that included two losses to defending state champion (and eventual state runnerup) Pickerington Central and regional runnerup Olentangy Orange, along with Hilliard Bradley and Olentangy Liberty. But Newark (19-7) upset sixth seed Gahanna and second seed Liberty en route to its district title, because of one notable stat: only 8.4 turnovers per game, the best in Wildcat history.
"B.J. Duling's team was at 11.4, and our 2008 (state championship) team was at 12, which is still very good," coach Jeff Quackenbush said. "That had a lot to do with our point guard. They all bought in, especially Grant. We had to be proficient with what we did, because the teams we were playing had so much length."
This Newark club, led by Burkholder, finished as the top free throw team in the state at 80.2 percent and number three in 3-point shooting at 41.3. Not surprisingly, he finished second all-time for the Wildcats on 3s at 43.9, trailing only J.T. Shumate's 45. Burkholder's 88 percent foul shooting this season (77-of-87) tied for fifth all-time. His 48 percent 3-point shooting as a sophomore ranks third on the Newark list, and overall, his 130 made 3s is fifth. He is fourth with 86 games played for the Wildcats.
The foul shooting is no accident. "Every morning, school starts at 7:25, and we're in here, shooting free throws at 7, then have to make it to class on time," Burkholder said.
His improvement is also no accident, as he is the quintessential gym rat.
"I get here at 3:30 or 4 o'clock before home games, to get everything set up. He's already in there, doing ballhandling and shooting drills, before every game," Quackenbush said. "I always go into every game, trying to be warmed up, to get a feel for how I'm going to play," Burkholder said. "The hope is that the reps will show on the court."
The Wildcats' coaching staff knew that Burkholder would be the focus of every opposing defense, and was at a disadvantage because of his size.
"We definitely talked about a few things," Quackenbush said. "He needed to be ready to catch and shoot, but people were going to run him off the 3-point line, so he needed to get to the mid-range line. He needed to get comfortable taking those shots, and once he did, it really helped the team. He also needed to finish around the rim and feel comfortable going to the rim, and he got better at that, too. He shot more free throws than in the previous two years."
"I definitely had to shoot more different kinds of shots, some crazy shots where it was hard to even get them off," Burkholder said. "They made it tough, coming off downscreens and closing on me fast. I improved my pullup jumper from last year, especially my floater."
Quackenbush noted that earlier this week, Burkholder was in the gym working on things for two hours. He had a visit planned this week with NAIA Mount Vernon Nazarene, while OAC members Otterbein, Heidelberg and Ohio Northern are also very interested. There also may be interest from West Liberty State, which lost in this year's Division II national championship game.
"His career is not close to being finished," Quackenbush said. "But with the (transfer) portal now, it's a little different for Division II. It doesn't help Division II and Division III kids. It's a longer process now. Grant has obviously paid attention to the guys before him, like Kade (Bafford) and Elijah (Hinton) who put it all that extra time."
"It hasn't been just me. Others have been working hard to get better, too," Burkholder said. "I think they're going to be very good next year. (Freshman) Ty Gilbert got better and better throughout the season. Without him, we couldn't have made that run. Playing as a sophomore, Braylon Morris gained more and more confidence. And Steele (Meister) and Ethan (Stare) will be three-year starters."
This article originally appeared on Newark Advocate: Grant Burkholder is The Advocate Boys Basketball Player of the Year.