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Posted by Bill Burkhard on May 17, 2017
In the relatively small village of Heuvelton, situated about 10 miles south of the City of Ogdensburg, when Marchcomes each year the residents begin to talk and think about basketball championships. Nope, not the NCAA type, well at least not all of them. These people's talk of the "road to the final four" turns to women's high school basketball. For the past several years the Heuvelton Bulldogs women's varsity team has been a major factor in the New York State women's basketball tournament. I am pretty sure you would have had to have been living in a cave somewhere to not have heard that the Lady Bulldogs have won three straight New York State Class D Women's titles.
This month it was my honor, and pleasure, to sit down for a coach to coach talk with Rob Powers. Rob is the head women's basketball coach at Heuvelton Central School and the person most responsible for this terrific success.
Obviously, we have gone away from our normal monthly honoring of an athlete to focus on this highly successful coach, who, by the way, wants very little credit for this success. As a coach, I have been curious for a long time about this man's ability, and his secret, to produce championship teams. The process of putting this month's article together did not disappoint.
Rob grew up in Heuvelton and is a graduate of Heuvelton Central School, Class of 1988. Growing up in this small village in St. Lawrence County, the daily activities for kids was centered around what sport season he was involved in. In the fall he played soccer, while winter was basketball season and spring was baseball season. He shares that while in high school he enjoyed sports. He played soccer for four years, He was a baseball player but quit playing in junior high stating, "not really sure why I quit." In his senior year in one of those "you know more than the coach" moments he and a few of his friends quit the basketball team! While there is certainly regret over that decision, he says that he remembers many of the things his varsity coach, John Tehonica, taught him. He uses some of the techniques and plays from those days while he was on the Heuvelton varsity. Today, he enjoys his current relationship with Coach Tehonica.
Rob left his hometown after graduation from high school, "not expecting to return." He went to study Exercise Science at the University of Buffalo. He worked three jobs "like everyone else," it seemed. Shortly before he would have graduated from college, he was offered, and accepted, an opportunity to return to Ogdensburg to be the manager of a video store, Movies Plus. Not long after returning to the area in 2000, he was offered the chance to become involved in the Heuvelton girls program by the coach at that time, Larry Nichols. It was mainly voluntary at that point, but it was not long and an opening occurred in the modified program. Rob took over both the seventh and eighth grade programs for three years. He moved to the JV team for 3 years after that. His last season as a JV Coach his team tied rival Hammond for the league title.
When Rob first began coaching, the varsity women's basketball program was "possibly" considered the third most popular sport for young women at the school. He can vividly recall his thoughts that if the school could be successful in soccer and softball, then basketball could eventually have its own importance. Rob notes that the girls and he " were sick of losing by 20 point every game."
As with any successful athletic program, Rob realized that the strength of the women’s program needed to be in the feeder programs. Rob knew that he needed coaches he could trust and that would teach fundamentals properly to the younger girls. He considers himself fortunate to have Tony Williams, Charlie McCormick, and Bernie Breault working with the younger girls. Rob is quick to point out the importance of these three men. He says that he looks at this program like a triangle. "You have to have a very strong base." "I am lucky to have great assistants who support the program 100%." He does not hesitate to suggest that all the assistants have bought into what he expects from them, so there is little worry that things are not being taught properly. "I expect that all the girls should be able to dribble with both hands, shoot layups with both hands and understand proper offensive and defensive footwork." He is currently relying on Denise Curry, his modified coach, to begin the teaching of what is proper to the younger players.
Again, as in most schools, just before the ladies see their first varsity action, they serve time on the junior varsity. It's at this point where they begin to refine the fundamentals taught to them at the lower levels and put all of the various pieces together. Currently, this process falls into the very capable hands of Rob's assistant coach, Austin Weakfall. Coach Weakfall reiterates that "my main goal is to prepare the players for the varsity level." He thinks he is able to "acclimate the JV players to what will be expected of them when they reach the varsity level." Due to the success of the varsity the better younger players occasionally find themselves on the varsity earlier than some other schools. Lately, the younger players who get promoted to the varsity level, "get lots of varsity playing time. This makes the decision to promote younger players easier. Coach Weakfall feels a great sense of pride when he sees his JV players doing well at the next level. Coach Powers is not lost on the importance of his JV Coach. Rob shares the Coach Weakfall offers great suggestions during varsity games, is a great teacher of the game, and is willing to do whatever he can to make the program better. Coach Weakfall describes Rob as a tireless worker. "I will get texts from him at 3 and 4 AM sometimes." He thinks Rob is a great communicator and he leads by example. The "girls know what to expect from him and they go out and do it."
Rob's formula for success is not a difficult one to understand. It begins at the lower levels of the program where he asks the biddy and modified coaches to focus on the fundamentals and less on games. His belief is that to be able to shoot properly or make a layup you first need to know how to dribble, pass the ball and have "good footwork." These fundamentals and others are worked on daily with the younger girls. Don't misunderstand, they also work on proper techniques of shooting the ball and how to play proper defense. By the time the girls reach the JV leve,l the drills become more difficult but the girls are well prepared for this.
Stacey Powers, Rob's wife of four years, begins our time together by saying "he is a tireless worker, spending many hours preparing for practice and games. Stacy goes on to say that she is very "proud of him and his dedication to the girls." She admits that when she first met Rob she did not know "too much about basketball" but she is fully behind him now. She has gotten completely taken in by the "excitement" throughout the Heuvelton community.
Coach Powers realizes a major part of the success they have had is based on the contributions of this year's three seniors, Paige McCormick, Kristi Donnelly and Kedan Mack. We decided that although I could talk with the entire team we agreed that I should talk with these three seniors. They describe Coach as 'the perfect coach for us." "He makes practice fun, and challenging at the same time." Paige stated that there was "never a day that I did not want to go to practice." While they will miss their time with Coach, they are sure he will "welcome us back" when they are home on break from college. Kedan, who will continue her education next year at the University of Buffalo, describes the team as "goony" and the Coach as the "glue that holds us all together." The girls could not imagine having someone else as a coach. They are unanimous in their praise of his ability to bring the best out of them and to clearly communicate to them what is expected of them. They take pride that many of the women basketball players are also honor students. Coach says that the girls pride themselves in being student leaders away from school too. "The girls are all great role models for the younger girls to look up to."
There have been volumes written of the numerous contributions of All-Everything player Paige McCormick. He is also not lost on the multitude of contributions Paige has made to the women's athletic program at Heuvelton. Rob has a lot of confidence that Paige will do well as she goes on to continue her basketball career at UMASS this summer. "I never knew what a Division 1 athlete looked like, now I do." He describes Paige as the most unselfish, intense player he has ever seen. She works extremely hard to improve every practice or open gym. According to her coach, Paige never takes a play off, on offense or defense, (wish you could have seen the smile he had on his face when he said this). "She is all about the team." He points out an interesting stat. "She scores many of her points on offensive rebounds." She has never been a "stats type of player." She is also one of the loudest cheerleaders when she is not in a game. Rob realizes how much Paige has meant to the team and to him personally. He hopes that the teams on his schedule next year feel that without Paige they will beat the Lady Bulldogs, everyone involved with this program thinks this is a dangerous way to look at life without Paige!
Rob has learned some valuable tools and lessons in his time as the Coach of this highly successful program, HIS program! He considers himself lucky to have had great mentors who he can rely on to give him solid advice. He attends camps and lectures, which he enjoys, to stay current with what is happening. He encourages his players to participate with other teams during the summer, play on AAU teams,etc. He says the Heuvelton area does not have formal AAU. The girls seem happy to play with other north country athletes. However, they do participate in two summer leagues as a team, to work on "our stuff." His desire to encourage, and expect, his players to "always do things the right way" is very evident. He is not overly demanding, yet the girls seem to get the message of what is expected of them. Clearly they buy into the "team first" attitude whether they are on the modified team or a varsity starter, star or reserve!
Nothing is perfect and although the Bulldogs sport a record that anyone would envy, there are really very few problems that Coach faces during any season. There are disgruntled fans and moms and dads, at times, in Heuvelton too! He is questioned quite a bit on his "not taking time out." He always tells the girls "there will be no timeouts when you get in the real world." He wants them to work through their problems. His Athletic Director, Dave Steele, does a great job scheduling the women's team challenging non-league games to fill out their regular season schedule. Coach feels these games are instrumental in his team's success. The ladies enjoy the challenge of playing outside their league!
There are few, if any, coaches in the nation that have had more success than Rob Powers. Through all the accolades and championships, he remains extremely humble. Everyone I spoke to about Rob has a story of how he deflects praise from himself to the other people in the program, and, of course, his players. He makes sure that everyone in the program feels important, from the manager and his assistants to the number 12 player on the team. Don't get me wrong, he is enjoying the ride, and looks anxiously toward the future with "a lot of talent to look forward to coaching." However, as Rob says, "life is funny isn't it? If you would have told me when I was in high school that I would someday coach a team to 3 State Championships, I would have laughed you out of the room."
My thanks to Rob and Stacey, the assistant coaches and especially the players who helped with the development of this article. You were all so welcoming. It is time, in my opinion, that Rob get the praise he deserves. This man is very well-respected by his peer, players, fans, and everyone I talked to. By the way, Rob has absolutely NO interest in coaching anywhere else other than the Lady Bulldogs!
I feel that I have made a new friend in Coach Rob Powers; he makes you feel that way! Good luck to all of you. I have the feeling there are more happy days in this program’s future.