Oh, the glory days.
When Paul Koepke took over Bellaire basketball, he stepped into some mighty big coaching shoes.
He’s got the Eagles on the right track as they work to return to being a powerhouse program. The culture almost fits the visions he’s had since taking over for legendary and hall of fame coach Stan Sexton. They’re 8-7 overall and 6-5 in Ski Valley League play.
But today he’s preparing to lose his only senior starter, Cole Robinson, perhaps better known as The Captain. Robinson may not be as famous as the professional athletes whose careers led to being known as The Captain — baseball’s Derek Jeter and hockey’s Steve Yzerman —but he is to the locals.
“I have a bunch of freshmen,” noted Koepke, who’s been around the Eagles since the early 2000s as a middle school and varsity assistant coach. “I couldn’t ask for a better set up than having him as my captain.”
Robinson, a three-sport star for the Eagles, joined Bellaire’s 22-2 varsity team his freshman year as the postseason run ended with a 50-41 upset loss to Suttons Bay in the Regional. That loss ended a string of deep postseason runs covering decades. It was Koepke’s first year at the helm.
Today the Eagles are preparing to host Fife Lake Forest Area with their captain possibly on the sideline. He suffered an ankle injury in this week’s 44-32 win over Pellston. Koepke helped the senior guard off the floor after his first career injury.
He saw a glimpse of how things could be next year without The Captain, but he loved how his Eagles responded and how Robinson handled it.
The Eagles immediately went into a “win it for Cole” mode. Bellaire hopes tonight’s game will be the only game the 6-foot, 205-pounder needs to sit for a full recovery.
“Cole was on the bench cheering like a mad man after the injury,” Koepke said. “The kids were high-fiving him, and he was coaching kids up.
“We probably had better effort after that,” he continued. “We competed at a higher level, and I think we won that one for Cole.”
The injury didn’t hamper his leadership skills a bit. The Eagles beat Pellston with the same freshmen and sophomores Robinson’s had under his wings for some time.
Robinson has high hopes the young players will help win a District championship like the Eagles regularly did during their glory days. He has yet to win a District title – in any sport – during his years at Bellaire. He’s got this basketball season and his senior baseball season to experience it.
He did experience a first earlier this basketball season. Bellaire beat Gaylord St. Mary 69-62 on Feb. 8, the first win Cole and his senior teammates had experienced over the Snowbirds in any sport.
Robinson, who admits football is his favorite sport followed by baseball, likes helping his young teammates on the court. And he can’t wait to see them on the baseball field.
The Eagles have racked up more basketball wins this season than the previous two combined.
“For us, this is a big improvement,” Robinson said. “We’re a really young team.
“I think we’re going to surprise a few teams in the Districts,” he continued. “It’s going to be a tough one.”
Ellsworth, last year’s champion, will likely get the top seed in the 2022 tournament, hosted by Central Lake. Boyne Falls and Gaylord St. Mary also will vie for the title. The Eagles lost to Ellsworth 70-52 in the season opener. The freshmen were coming off just a two-game middle school season due to COVID-19 cancellations.
“Our record is starting to show we’re not just a bunch of freshmen just being freshmen,” Koepke said. “We’re starting to get pretty good.”
Bellaire starts three freshmen, a sophomore and The Captain.
“This man is selfless,” Koepke said about Robinson. “He’s the first one to come to me when I get there (to practice or games) to give me a fist bump and ask me how my day is going.
“Captain means a lot of things. He’s the last one to go off the bus. He cleans the bus. He’s the last one to leave the locker room.”
Robinson is averaging nearly six points and three assists per game. He also hauls in eight rebounds per contest. He’s coming from an outstanding football season as the Eagles’ tight end, tackle and defensive end. He had two touchdown receptions in the fall.
Jayden Hansen, a freshman, leads the team in scoring at more than 15 per game. Another freshman, Drake Koepke, averages 12 points. Hanson is among Northern Michigan’s leading rebounders. Koepke, the coach’s son, is among the area’s leaders in steals.
“We’re always looking for the third scorer,” Koepke said.
But the starting lineup is set.
“We finally kind of found out these are our guys, our lineup,” Koepke said. “We’re growing now.
“We understand who we are, and now we have to fix some things we struggle with,” he continued. “Right now we have a great attitude, and we are peaking.”
Robinson goes back a long way in Bellaire. He was a water boy for the varsity team when his father, Brock, was the Eagles’ head football coach. Brock died suddenly in 2020, and had served as The Captain’s youth football and baseball coach and high school football coach his freshmen and sophomore seasons.
The younger Robinson also lost his 2020 baseball season due to COVID. But he has persevered. Today he’s a regular on the court coaching youth basketball and his youthful teammates.
“You can say it’s been a little tough —I obviously miss him of course,” The Captain said. “He loved sports just as much as I do.
“I think about him usually before most sporting events – especially football games I’d think about him beforehand.”
Coach Koepke, who also assisted Coach Robinson in football, is amazed by his captain’s career and his contribution to the Eagles’ success.
“He is always a positive person,” Koepke said. “There are so many things he does.”
If the Eagles don’t make the great run this season as they have in the past, the veterans they’ll have next season along with others impacted by Robinson should help them return to the glory days.
“You are going to be a better person because you met Cole,” Koepke said. “That’s basically what Cole is.
“We’re all going to miss Cole. He’s made me a better person for sure.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Bellaire’s Cole Robinson looks for an open teammate during a game against Johannesburg-Lewiston. (Middle) Robinson works to bring down a Bear Lake ball carrier. (Below) Robinson works with players in Bellaire’s youth program on their shooting form. (Top and middle photos courtesy of the Antrim Review; below photo courtesy of the Bellaire athletic department.)
Five showdowns of undefeated teams highlight this week's Michigan high school statewide schedule as we begin our second-half buildup toward the end of the regular season.
If you're not watching in person, check out most of the matchups highlighted below, and several others, on MHSAA.tv. Check in as well with the MHSAA Scores page for all of them as they come in. (Games below are Friday unless noted.)
Bay & Thumb
Croswell-Lexington (5-0) at Almont (5-0) - Watch
Just past halfway through the Blue Water Area Conference schedule, half the teams are 3-1 or 4-0 in league play – with these the co-leaders. Croswell-Lexington hasn’t played a game closer than 19 points this fall, but did lose last year’s meeting with Almont 37-26. The Raiders, meanwhile, have won the last two weeks by seven and one point, respectively – but opened the season with three straight shutouts as the stifling defense they’ve become known for has given up only 34 points total.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lapeer (4-1) at Grand Blanc (3-2) - Watch, Linden (4-1) at Fenton (4-1) - Watch, Birch Run (4-1) at Freeland (5-0) - Watch, Madison Heights Lamphere (4-1) at Marine City (4-1).
Westland John Glenn (5-0) at Belleville (5-0) - Watch
Belleville’s 42-3 victory over Livonia Franklin last week was the team’s 30th straight, and the Tigers now own the state’s longest active winning streak with Powers North Central’s coming to an end at 41 on the same night. Belleville’s next challenger is John Glenn, which under second-year coach Jason Mensing has as many victories this fall as the last two combined and has nearly guaranteed its first winning season since 2014. Mensing guided his former team Ottawa Lake Whiteford through several memorable moments, and this will be the Rockets’ biggest so far under his leadership.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gibraltar Carlson (4-1) at Trenton (4-1) - Watch, Romeo (3-2) at Macomb Dakota (4-1) - Watch, Lake Orion (5-0) at Rochester Adams (3-2) - Watch, Marine City Cardinal Mooney (3-2) at Clarkston Everest Collegiate (3-2) - Watch.
Goodrich (5-0) at Corunna (5-0) - Watch
The winner of this matchup clinches a share of the Flint Metro League Stars championship, similar to last season when Goodrich won the league and Corunna was second thanks to the Martians’ 42-7 win in their Week 5 matchup. Both arguably have been even better this fall. Goodrich has handed the only losses this season to Frankenmuth and Linden, and Corunna has given up only 31 points this season and no more than 17 in a game while scoring at least 38 every time out.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Evart (4-1) at Beal City (5-0) - Watch, Grand Ledge (5-0) at DeWitt (2-2) - Watch, Fowler (5-0) at Pewamo-Westphalia (4-1) - Watch, Montrose (4-1) at New Lothrop (4-1) - Watch.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Charlevoix (4-1) at Elk Rapids (2-3)
There’s more riding here than the initial glance my indicate. Charlevoix, with a win, would clinch a share of the Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders title – its first since 2020 and after finishing second to Boyne City both of the past two seasons. The Rayders haven’t had a game closer than 13 points since falling to Traverse City St. Francis by one in their season opener. Elk Rapids got off to a tough start but has won two straight – both in shutouts – and is looking for its first win over Charlevoix since 2018.
Southeast & Border
Jackson (4-1) at Adrian (4-1) - Watch
Jackson has a chance to set up a Week 7 winner-take-all matchup with Chelsea for the Southeastern Conference White championship – a nice jump after finishing third last season. The Vikings haven’t defeated Chelsea since 2018 but lost by a respectable 17-0 last fall. But they can’t overlook Adrian, still enjoying its best season since 2016 despite falling to Chelsea 28-18 last week. The Maples would love to hand Jackson a loss tonight and cheer for the Vikings next week with a title share possible.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Michigan Center (4-1) at Grass Lake (4-1) - Watch, Flat Rock (4-1) at Milan (3-2) - Watch, Ann Arbor Huron (3-2) at Saline (5-0) - Watch, Hudson (5-0) at Blissfield (3-2) - Watch.
Parma Western (5-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-1)
We’re halfway through the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference schedule, and this has emerged as an important matchup with Parma Western tied with Hastings for first and Harper Creek only a game back after falling to the Saxons 34-6 last week. The Beavers struggled to 3-6 a year ago but already have avenged 2022 losses to Battle Creek Lakeview, Battle Creek Central and Marshall – and Western defeated them 34-0 last season before Harper Creek went 2-1 to finish the fall. Western’s defense is a notable strength again, giving up only 37 points total this season despite taking on Dearborn Divine Child and Detroit Country Day over the first two weeks.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Paw Paw (5-0) at Edwardsburg (3-2) - Watch, Constantine (4-1) at Allegan (4-1) - Watch, St. Joseph (3-2) at Portage Northern (5-0) - Watch, Muskegon Catholic Central (3-2) at Schoolcraft (4-1) - Watch.
Gladstone (4-1) at Menominee (5-0)
This is the first of three games that will tell a lot about Menominee’s season as the Maroons enter this stretch alone atop the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper at 4-0 but with Gladstone, Week 7 opponent Negaunee and Week 8 opponent Kingsford all 3-1 in league play. While this is a new conference for the Maroons this season, they have plenty of history with Gladstone as both came from the Great Northern Conference – and Menominee had won three straight in the series before Gladstone’s 28-6 victory last fall. Gladstone’s lone defeat this year came Week 3 to Kingsford, 35-12.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Maple City Glen Lake (3-2) at Sault Ste. Marie (3-2) - Watch, Manistique (3-2) at Iron Mountain (5-0) - Watch, Marquette (2-2) at Escanaba (1-4) - Watch, Houghton (2-3) at Calumet (1-4) - Watch.
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (4-1) at East Grand Rapids (5-0)
We’ve been watching East Grand Rapids’ rejuvenation this fall with this among games circled for special attention, and Forest Hills Central’s 15-14 loss to Byron Center last week hardly lessens the intrigue. The Rangers are still among favorites statewide in Division 3, ranked No. 2, and East Grand Rapids is right behind them this week at No. 3 (while Byron Center is No. 2 in Division 2). The Ottawa-Kent Conference White title won’t be decided with this matchup, but it surely will be impacted – and the Rangers have defeated EGR all three times they’ve met since the Pioneers rejoined the division in 2020.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Allendale (5-0) at Spring Lake (4-1), Lowell (4-1) at Byron Center (5-0), Caledonia (4-1) at Hudsonville (4-1) - Watch, Zeeland East (4-1) at Muskegon (3-2).
Mendon (5-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (5-0) - Watch
Movement on the overall 8-player enrollment list have made this a matchup we’ll see just this once this fall, as Mendon – last year’s Division 2 runner-up – has moved to Division 1 and is ranked No. 2, while Lenawee Christian is top-ranked in Division 2 after winning Division 1 titles in 2020 and 2021 and reaching a Regional Final last year. Still, many 8-player eyes will be watching. The Cougars have given up just 32 points this season and no more than 12 in a game, and that defense should be part of the key matchup within the matchup because Mendon is scoring 52 per contest and coming off an 80-point performance.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (5-0) at Coleman (4-1) - Watch, Brown City (5-0) at Mayville (5-0) - Watch, St. Ignace (5-0) at Newberry (4-1), Norway (4-1) at Ontonagon (4-1) - Watch.
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PHOTO Muskegon Catholic Central and Orchard View players reach to get a hand on the ball during their meeting this season. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)