BELLEVILLE — Leaning his back up against the padded wall in the quaint Belleville Henderson gymnasium, Mike Burdick takes a second before answering the question posed to him.
“Why has his boys basketball team struggled so much in recent years?”
To be fair, it’s a loaded question. You can’t really sugar coat it, Belleville Henderson has been bad, these are some of their recent records: 0-16 (2016-17); 2-17 (2017-18); 1-14 (2018-19).
Wearing black sweatpants, a Belleville Henderson basketball sweatshirt and a black whistle hanging from his neck, he looks for the right words as his team begins practice on the court only a few feet in front of him.
“We’re rebuilding the program, that’s the biggest thing,” Burdick says.
He’s currently in the fourth year of a process that he says generally takes three-to-five years before real results start to show.
Prior to Burdick’s arrival, the Panthers weren’t much better. In 2015-16, the season before Burdick’s first, the Belleville Henderson boys finished 1-15.
When Burdick came on prior to the 2016-17 season, he brought with him optimism and nostalgia. Belleville Henderson was where Burdick played during his high school days in the early 1990s, a time when the Panthers were consistently in the mix for the Frontier League “B” Division title.
But more recently, he was a disciple of Pat Bassett, the highly successful girls basketball coach at South Jefferson for 14 years.
Burdick was candid, when he showed up to coach the Panthers, he thought he could turn things around quickly.
“I’ll be honest with you, when I came in, having worked through coach Bassett’s program at South Jeff, working with his program and his girls and at the AAU level and youth level there, I had all the tools and a chip on my shoulder, like I was going to come in here and change the world in my first year,” Burdick said.
Burdick realized quickly that changing the culture at Belleville Henderson would require a complete rebuild of the program itself.
“This has been the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do,” he said.
Basketball had taken a back seat at Belleville Henderson prior to Burdick’s arrival. The numbers were low and there wasn’t much activity at the youth level, which is the base of any successful program.
“We had to go back to getting kids at a young age,” Burdick said. “It really starts at third grade, if you don’t have a youth program, you have nothing in six, seven years. We went right back to square one and worked on fundamentals. We got more kids introduced into the sport, offering more programs and more basketball. Prior, they hadn’t done many leagues or tournaments, so we’ve introduced a ton at every level.”
As a result, the amount of participation in basketball at Belleville Henderson has gradually risen. Burdick said that right now there are 25-30 kids in each of the third, fourth and fifth grade levels. That growth can be seen at the junior varsity level as well, initially there were seven kids playing JV basketball, but the past couple of years, Burdick has been able to field a JV team of 14-15 kids.
Much of Belleville Henderson’s athletic identity has been centered around soccer. Just this past fall the boys soccer team finished with a 17-1 record. A big part of Burdick’s goal is to weave basketball back into the fabric of Belleville Henderson athletics.
However, the two sports are in no way mutually exclusive; eight of the nine varsity basketball players played varsity soccer in the fall.
One of those players is Ryan Green. In addition to starring for the Panthers on the pitch, the senior is a four-year varsity member of the basketball team, and Burdick’s most experienced player.
“Ryan has been one of the best kids I’ve been able to coach,” Burdick said. “His focus, his commitment, his leadership to the older and younger kids has been crucial.”
As a senior, Green feels an obligation to seeing this process through as far as he can. He hopes to play soccer in college, making this his final season of high-level basketball. For as much as the Panthers have struggled on the court throughout his time on varsity, it would have been understandable had he quit years ago. But Green never had that thought.
“The future looks bright, we have a good defensive team this year,” Green said. “Obviously things didn’t go the way we wanted to in the past but we’re looking to be strong this year and play our best.”
Green has seen many teammates come and go, but the commitment to the program under Burdick has only grown. Players now are starting to buy into the process.
“In years past probably not, because you’ve seen the results,” Green said. “But this year I think so because we look as good as we’ve looked in a while I think.”
Logan Simpson and Garrett Gehrke are the other two seniors on the squad and examples of the loyalty these players have to their school and teammates.
“Personally I play for this program because I like to keep in shape and I like to be involved with these guys, they’re like family to me,” Simpson said. “So whatever they do, I like to be out there with them, supporting them and being alongside them, even if I’m not the greatest player.”
There’s a lot of optimism surrounding this year’s team and expectations are high. The Panthers are hoping to finish with a winning record and challenge for one of the top spots in the Frontier League “D” Division. Granted, that could be difficult given the division’s size (seven teams) and strength. They would also like to make it to sectionals for the first time since 2012 when the team went 5-12. The Panthers’ last winning season was in 2010-11.
Inside the Belleville Henderson gym, the boys are focused, each one of them in a silver pinny, which is tucked into their black shorts. Assistant coach Dan Hess and JV coach Clint Clark attentively ran drills as Burdick looked on.
It’s important to be positive, especially when the team has scraped together just a few wins in the past three years. Burdick admitted that part has not always easy.
“If I told you it hasn’t been a struggle, I’d be lying to you,” Burdick said. “It’s been a struggle, there have been times where I’ve second-guessed myself, second-guessed everything that we’re doing. But you have to have a short memory and you have to keep telling yourself it’s a process and success doesn’t come overnight.”
Burdick added that he’s a firm believer in the idea that you have to learn to lose before you can learn to win.
Fortunately, Burdick is supported by the administrators at Belleville Henderson, along with by the community, making it a little easier to bear the losses as the plan continues to come together.
“They understand the number of athletes that we do and don’t have and they also see the commitment level from us and (the players),” Burdick said. “They see what we’ve been doing to get better.”
The commitment from his players has become more apparent. When 20 kids routinely show up to open gym, three times a week, or are eagerly signing up for tournaments, it’s a sign to Burdick that they’ve bought in.
The Panthers will play three scrimmages over the course of this week before beginning their season on Dec. 5 at LaFargeville, last season’s Frontier League runner-up. The Panthers are still underdogs and they don’t mind. Being underdogs just adds to the excitement when they win.
“When we win it feels like we’ve out-hustled the other team, it’s a great feeling,” Green said. “We hope to have a lot of wins this year.”