The Laguna Beach High boys’ basketball team entered last week’s Charlie Wilkins Memorial Tournament riding high as one of the hottest teams in Orange County.
The Breakers won their first seven games of the season, their best start in school history. But a quick pair of losses to Orange Lutheran and Buena Park in the tournament at Westminster High had Laguna Beach going in the opposite direction.
Rather than fold staring down a bleak tournament outlook, Laguna Beach responded in a big way, thanks to Blake Burzell.
Led by the star senior, coach Bret Fleming’s squad stormed back to win three straight games. Among these was a 42-41 thriller, in which the Breakers avenged a 14-point loss to Orange Lutheran with a victory in the tournament title game on Dec. 16.
During the tournament-opening defeat that set the stage for the comeback, Burzell was hardly himself. The 6-foot-6 wingman recorded just 10 points before fouling out in the third quarter.
Asked for the greatest difference between the two meetings with Orange Lutheran, Burzell is quick to note a shift in effort that turned the tides of the tournament.
"We played way harder,” said Burzell, who had 22 points and 13 rebounds in the final against Orange Lutheran. “I think we had one offensive board in the first game against Orange Lutheran. In the second game, we had 13. So we were just more aggressive, more balls were falling to us. I didn't foul out, so that helped. It was a low-scoring game, but I thought we were really composed and played good defense.”
After an 18-point, seven-rebound outing in a narrow loss to Buena Park, Burzell went on to average 24 points and 10.3 boards throughout the remainder of the tournament, as the Breakers rattled off a trio of victories over San Bernardino Cajon, Panorama City St. Genevieve and Orange Lutheran. Burzell’s improved play allowed Laguna Beach to win its second tournament this month. The only other time the program had won two tournaments in the same season was in 1989-90.
While Burzell’s ability to score the basketball and dominate the boards jumps off the page, it is an increased maturity and unselfishness with the basketball that has Fleming particularly impressed this season.
"In the past, he had forced shots, gone one against two, things like that,” Fleming said. “This year, he's just becoming better and better about trusting his teammates, finding the open man and making the game easier for other players.”
Burzell is the first to point out his passing as the greatest improvement in his game, in addition to a newfound penchant for thunderous slams at the rim. This was on full display during a well-rounded effort in the semifinals against St. Genevieve.
Burzell struggled to find his groove early on, but bounced back with 20 points in the second half to blow the game open. And while scoring was undoubtedly at the forefront, it was five assists to compliment his 26 points and eight rebounds that helped get his teammates rolling en route to a 59-43 victory.
Although it is Burzell’s dominance on the basketball court that has the Breakers positioned as the favorite to win their 10th Orange Coast League title in the past 12 seasons — the school will make the jump to the Sunset League next season — his status as one of California’s top right-handed pitching prospects is what has made him a household name in local prep sports circles. With a fastball that sits in the low 90s, and a body frame built to instill fear in the batter’s box, it is easy to see why.
Burzell was originally committed to play baseball for Duke at the next level, but family circumstances and a new opportunity led to a change in plans. Burzell said he’s now committed to play at Arizona State, which will allow him to be closer to his mother, Jane Burzell, who is battling Stage 4 cancer.
Rather than being forced to watch her son from across the country, Burzell will be just a five-hour drive from the family’s Laguna Beach home. In moments like this, time spent with family is paramount, and there could not have been a better fit.
Not only will Burzell be close to home, but he will also be suiting up for a program that has built a reputation on producing major league ballplayers. In 2017, no other college had more alums on opening day rosters than the Sun Devils.
As the Burzell family navigates this difficult time, Jane could not be prouder of her son’s accomplishments, and most importantly, the man he has become.
“He's been a very supportive, loving, kind son and friend, and we're extremely proud of him,” Jane said. “He's accomplished a number of athletic accolades, but just him as an individual, he's done a lot of wonderful things for kids with cancer. He has an incredible heart, and we couldn't be prouder of him.”
Fleming echoes a similar sentiment, complimenting Burzell’s growth off the court as quickly as his prowess on it.
As for Burzell’s prolific athletic career, he has his sights set on more accomplishments before looking ahead to his next chapter. The dual-sport standout tasted a CIF Southern Section Division 4 baseball title as a sophomore, the school’s first, and isn’t shy about his confidence in the Breakers as a contender — both on the hardwood and the baseball diamond.
“We're right there,” he said. “Teams better watch out.”
Born: Nov. 3, 1999
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Height: 6 feet 6
Weight: 210 pounds
Coach: Bret Fleming
Favorite food: Pizza
Favorite movie: “Happy Gilmore”
Favorite athletic moment: “Winning [Laguna Beach’s] first CIF baseball title as a sophomore.”