Almost two years later, the memories are still fresh in Ron Bellamy’s mind.
It was the biggest game in program history for West Bloomfield’s football team, the Division 1 championship against Clarkston in 2017. Bellamy’s team averaged 35.8 points in the first 13 games of the season — and had beaten its league rival by 21 in the regular season.
This time was different.
Bellamy’s players were tight. They made mistakes, with turnovers and penalties. Everything went off the rails. There were so many suppositions and what-if’s, from the play calls to the players to the coaching staff.
His defense gave up only three points — and scored two. The offense didn’t generate any points at all. In the Lakers’ first appearance in the title game, they floundered, with a late interception giving Clarkston its third championship in a five-year span.
And the loss still stings. Even in defeat, Bellamy took away a valuable lesson.
“I learned that losing hurts. That was the first time I was distraught — with nightmares in the middle of the night,” Bellamy said. “As a coach, you sulk for a little bit and then you have to get back going (after) replaying plays in your mind and how you would do things differently.
“(Clarkston) had all the experience in the world and nothing rattled them. You saw it at 3-2 and we were (worried). When our players saw the coaches frantic, they were frantic. That’s one of the things I learned: Make it fun for the kids and don’t put extra pressure on them.”
There isn’t just one thing Bellamy gleaned from that experience — and it’s made him a better coach.
Bellamy is entering his 10th season at West Bloomfield, with football practices around the state beginning next week. Bellamy, 37, who was a standout receiver at Michigan from 1999-2002 and has helped transform a program that had only two previous playoff appearances when he took over in 2010.
Since Bellamy’s arrival, the Lakers have six straight winning seasons, with five consecutive trips to the playoffs, including a 9-3 mark last season that ended in a loss in the regional final to Belleville.
At West Bloomfield, Bellamy has helped winning become an expectation — and it’ll be one of the top teams in the state again this season. The bar is high again, with a core group of returning seniors, including safety Makari Paige and linebacker Cornell Wheeler, both of who have committed to Michigan, along with quarterback CJ Harris and defensive tackle Beau Davis, who are getting Division I college offers.
“This year, we’re definitely different from previous teams. We come together as a team more and hang together more after school and after football. We’re more hungry,” Wheeler said. “(Bellamy says) if we do our job in the school and on the field, the other stuff is going to come. Just focus on doing our part and being great leaders for the team.”
Keeping them home
Building a winner isn’t easy, especially in West Bloomfield, which plays in the Oakland Activities Association, one of the top leagues in the state. With perennial powers such as Clarkston, Southfield, Oak Park and now-defunct Farmington Hills Harrison, it’s been a tough road to respectability.
It’s hard to even keep the talent within the township from going elsewhere, with the allure of elite football programs at Birmingham Brother Rice, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Detroit Country Day nearby.
“We were losing kids to our rival, neighboring schools. They were winning state championships and you could look in the paper and see that kid went to our middle school,” Bellamy said. “We had to find a way to stop the bleeding. West Bloomfield is a desired area to live in; it’s a beautiful city and more affordable now than it ever has been. Once we were able to retain our kids, all of a sudden, we started to see some positive things happening for the program.”
That included building their own feeder program and developing within the North Farmington-West Bloomfield Vikings squad. Still, most of the top players went to one of the Farmington schools.
“We had to build a fence around us and that’s what we did,” Bellamy said. “We had homegrown kids play little-league football and once we got our kids to play for West Bloomfield, it was a blessing in disguise.”
After going a combined 7-20 in his first three seasons, the Lakers were 5-3 and had an opportunity to make the state playoffs if they won their final game of the regular season. A 21-point loss to Oxford was a disappointment but provided a turning point.
Bellamy decided to turn to his best players — regardless of class — and trust their backups.
“We said, (junior varsity) we love you, but our sophomores were better than our seniors,” Bellamy said. “Those sophomores became juniors and that group with Trishton Jackson, Eddy Wilson, Obbie Jackson, Michael King helped us become a state power.”
The call of coaching
Bellamy turned to coaching after his pro career ended in 2008, following stints with the Dolphins, Ravens and Lions. He had an opportunity to go into medical-device sales but got a push from then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who encouraged Bellamy in 2009 to look into a coaching career.
“Coach Carr told me that if he could do it all over again, he would have stayed coaching high school football. He won a national championship and coached a lot of All-Americans, Hall of Famers and made a lot of money,” Bellamy said. “He said that college coaching is a tough job that’s predicated on 17- to 22-year-olds and every Saturday, you’re judged on your job.
“He said, ‘You’re a coach,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ He said I should get into coaching at the high school level.”
Bellamy earned a master’s degree from Wayne State and after the previous coach at West Bloomfield resigned, he got the job. Getting his footing wasn’t easy, though, especially in a tough league with a program that hadn’t had significant success in a number of years.
“The biggest thing was the coaching staff. My first few years, I had no idea. I was 27 years old and I’m the head coach at West Bloomfield," Bellamy said. "You have Farmington Hills Harrison with John Herrington and George Porritt at St. Mary’s and Al Fracassa at Brother Rice.
“I’m surrounded by these legends in my own league. Kurt Richardson, who has become a Hall of Fame coach in his own right and arguably the top program in Michigan, and Chris Bell won a state championship at Lake Orion.
“I picked those guys’ brains as much as possible. Successful people watch successful people and I wanted to emulate a lot of things they did and how they built their culture. We were able to do that — it took a few years — but we were able to do that.”
The playoff disappointments are behind West Bloomfield and as the favorite in the OAA Red, the Lakers have increased expectations in the shadow of their mediocre past not too far in the rearview mirror. When the current seniors were in elementary school, it was a different story.
Making it back to the postseason is a minimum level, and getting back to the championship game is the clear goal.
“It turns into more competition. We know what our expectations are and we know how far we have to push ourselves higher,” Paige said. “We made it this far; let’s see how far we can go this year.”
Ron Bellamy has built a winner since taking over at West Bloomfield in 2010. Here are the Lakers’ records under Bellamy and how they’ve fared in the state playoffs.
2018: 9-3, lost to Belleville in regionals
2017: 11-3, lost to Clarkston in Division 1 state final
2016: 6-5, lost to Southfield in districts
2015: 9-1, lost to Novi in districts
2014: 9-2, lost to Walled Lake Central in districts
2013: 5-4, missed playoffs
2012: 2-7, missed playoffs
2011: 2-7, missed playoffs
2010: 3-6, missed playoffs
Key football dates
Aug. 12: Practices begins
Aug. 29: Games begin
Oct. 27: Playoff field announced
Nov. 1-2: Predistricts
Nov. 8-9: District finals
Nov. 15-16: Regionals
Nov. 23: State semifinals
Nov. 29-30: State finals