By Dan Gentner
NORTH BRANCH — As athletic director of a school sporting nearly 800 students, Jim Fish has his hands full keeping all of the student-athletes happy at North Branch High School.
Despite the school offering 17 varsity sports to its male and female students, it still wasn’t enough.
“I was approached about 10 years ago by a few parents who had an interest in starting a North Branch hockey team,” Fish said. “That was not feasible due to the cost of the program.”
The idea, however, stuck with Fish over the years. When Clio schools chose not to renew their hockey partnership with LakeVille, Fish jumped at the opportunity when the Falcons athletic director came calling.
“When LakeVille’s cooperative agreement with Clio ended two seasons ago, they contacted (us) and Dryden about the possibility of starting a cooperative team,” said Fish. “The athletic directors of the three schools had several meetings and put a timeline together which included gauging student interest, completing MHSAA requirements, and securing Board of Education approval from all three schools.”
The end result was the formation of the LakeVille-North Branch-Dryden co-op team in 2011 and an exciting new opportunity for hockey players. The Falcons serve as the host school and mascot, but all three athletic departments are actively involved with the team and share in supervision of the games, according to Fish.
Chosen as the program’s first head coach was Nate Clemons. No stranger to the Flint Metro area hockey scene, Clemons had previous coaching stops at Ortonville-Brandon, Lapeer West and Clio as well as 11 years as an assistant at Flint Carmen-Ainsworth.
“We have been very pleased with the hockey program and a great deal of the credit goes to Nate Clemons,” Fish said. “He is an outstanding coach who is extremely organized and well respected by the athletes and parents in the hockey program.”
Now in their second full season, LakeVille, who calls the Polar Palace in Lapeer their home arena, currently sports a 4-4 record after finishing 5-19-1 in their inaugural season last year under Clemons.
“We are the definition of average at this point,” Clemons said. “We’ve won some big games against Fenton-Linden, (Flint) Kearsley-Brandon-Holly, (Madison Heights) Bishop Foley and Grand Rapids and we played pretty well in our losses to Davison, Lapeer (East and West co-op), and Crestwood twice. Our January schedule is packed with a lot of great games against Port Huron, Kearsley, Goodrich, and a Titan tournament in the Detroit area.”
With half of the team’s roster hailing from North Branch, the Bronco athletes have certainly made their mark on the ice. North Branch skaters have combined for 15 goals and 17 assists through the first eight games, led by Simon Rogers’ nine goals and three assists. Dryden’s Evan Paupert tops the team with seven goals and eight assists.
Goaltender Dylan Bates has been tested early and often in net, stopping 202 of the 232 shots he has faced for a .871 save percentage and a goals against average of 3.75.
“North Branch has had a huge impact on this team,” said Clemons. “Seven of our 14 players this season are from North Branch and that includes our only goalie, Dylan Bates. Also, two of our assistant captains, Mitchel Walker and Simon Rogers, come from North Branch.”
Bates, Walker and fellow seniors Justin Carey and Travis Hill are all second year skaters with the program that gained valuable experience last season. Donning the Falcons jersey from North Branch and in their first year with the team are seniors Rogers and Isaac Smith and freshman Jacob Bader, one of only two freshmen on the squad.
“It’s always nice to have a talented freshman come out, but to have two first-year seniors means a lot to me personally,” Clemons said. “If an upper classman decides to leave the house, travel, or decides to pick up the sport, they must have heard good things about our program.”
Being a co-op, the team faces much larger obstacles than a traditional hometown hockey program. Geographic constraints are perhaps the biggest barrier Clemons and his squad must overcome.
“There are several things I would like to do as a team, but trying to have kids travel from three different cities is a bit much,” Clemons said. “These kids already do so much more than traditional teams do, travel wise.”
Another hurdle Clemons and his assistants were faced with was the potential of a lack of team cohesiveness and conflict arising from including skaters from three separate schools. But, the veteran coach credits the team members for realizing that without each other, there would be no team.
“You never really know how these things are going to turn out until the first skate, but I was pleasantly surprised,” said Clemons. “From day one, all the kids from all the schools got along very well.”
“I think there were two main factors in their smooth combination. One, a lot of these kids played house and travel hockey together at the Polar Palace in Lapeer when they were younger. And most importantly, two, I think these kids were smart enough to understand that they needed each other. They all wanted to play so bad, but they knew they couldn’t do it alone.”
For Clemons, however, the positive aspects of a co-op program certainly outweigh the negatives.
“The biggest pro of all — and the most important thing of all — is that most of these kids would not play hockey without the co-op,” Clemons said. “Some people see co-ops as a way to stack teams in the area, but for the most part, they’re used as a tool to ensure these programs stay alive.”
Despite the on and off-ice success of the program, the future of the co-op remains unclear as the current two-year cooperative agreement will expire after the season. Add in nine players set to graduate, including six from North Branch, and the prospects diminish.
According to Clemons, though, those closest to the program have invested too much to let anything happen.
“The players, parents, athletic directors and administration from all the schools have done so much to help the team and that I will do everything I can to ensure there’s a team for these players and the younger students,” said Clemons. “Hockey is an expensive sport, but the team has taken on all of the financial responsibilities — over $22,000 this season. We understand that school budgets, especially athletics, have been cut to the bare minimum to ensure the best academics possible, but with our team costing each district literally nothing, we hope to have all the districts support in the future.”
As area players sharpen blades, tape sticks and strap on gear next fall when their respective squads prepare for another season on the ice, Fish and his fellow athletic directors at Dryden and LakeVille remain optimistic that the Falcons skaters won’t be stuck on the sidelines.
“We are hopeful of continuing the hockey program as it has been a great opportunity for those athletes who would otherwise not be able to play high school hockey,” said Fish.
Dan Gentner is a sports writer for the Advertiser and can be reached at Sports@tcadvertiser.com
By Dan Gentner