BY DENNIS CHASE
---- — Stan Sexton likes to say his Bellaire Eagles ended the regular season 19-1.
"We won 19 and Mother Nature won one," he said, laughing. "But she beat up on a number of teams this winter."
Well, the Eagles are 20-0 now after Monday night's Class D district-opening basketball win over Gaylord St. Mary.
This on the heels of a 24-2 campaign that ended in the quarterfinals last March.
All this success should not come as a surprise because Bellaire's been consistently good under Sexton. In fact. the Eagles will be seeking a 16th district title under the BCAM Hall of Fame coach, who led the varsity for three years in the late 1970s and then came back to head the program again starting in 1992. Sexton's won well over 400 games at the varsity level. He has a winning percentage of 76 percent.
Sexton is quick to share the credit, praising the players, parents and the coaches in the system, especially those in the feeder programs that are often overlooked. He knows that's where it all starts and that's why he appreciates the work Paul Koepke is doing with the youth program now.
"That's been a key," Sexton said. "We have coaches with great experience and who want to be here. And then we have kids who want to play basketball. It's been encouraged from third grade on through."
Right now, though, Sexton is immersed in the present, and he likes the make-up of this Eagles team. He likes the high-low offense that 6-5 senior Mitch Teetzel and 6-4 senior Drew Bailey provide. He likes the versatility of 6-3 junior Denny Hall. He likes the perimeter game Tyler Thornton brings to the table (50 percent from the 3-point arc). And he likes the job Adam Underwood is doing at the point.
Most of all, he likes the unselfishness of this team and the fact it plays both ends of the court.
"We've doubled our assists over last year and that was a mighty fine ball club," Sexton said. "This team really shares the ball. We had 19 assists (last Tuesday). We always seem to be in double figures."
Sexton's philosophy is that kids need to recognize their strengths and weaknesses.
"You have to play to your strengths and stay away from your weaknesses," he said. "Of course, everybody wants to score. But some have to be passers and rebounders. That's what makes a team."
Defensively, the Trojans are allowing around 40 points a game.
"That's been one of our strong suits throughout the years and it certainly is this year," Sexton said.
Four Eagles are averaging in double figures with Teetzel leading the way at 14 a game. That's not an eye-popping number, but you have to take into consideration that Bellaire has had relatively few close games so minutes are limited for the starters.
Bellaire, which has had five Sweet Sixteen appearances in recent years, will be tested in this district. Once-beaten Boyne Falls looms Wednesday night. That one loss for the Loggers came at the hands of Bellaire in December.
Like other area schools, Bellaire's seen a dip in enrollment over the years. Sexton hopes "we've bottomed out if this economy can turn around."
"When the economy is good, northern Michigan thrives," he said. "When it's not, we starve to death a little bit."
Despite that, Bellaire basketball has remained strong. And it will probably continue.
"We've got a good group coming up in 6th, 7th and 8th grades," he said. "They've just got to grow a little."
That's not what opposing coaches want to hear, but then again they're accustomed to this, particularly in the last 10 years when the Eagles program has taken off and become noticed on a statewide level.
Sexton, who started coaching 7th grade basketball back in 1971, admits that success puts a target on the back. But he's OK with that.
"You don't want to lose," he said.
His teams seldom do.