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Robbins guided Sackets Harbor team to its destiny

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SACKETS HARBOR — Jeff Robbins joined last season’s Sackets Harbor boys basketball team on the court 12 days ago for one last celebration of the school’s state championship last March.

Former teammates exchanged greetings. Parents took pictures. A banner was unveiled.

And then this season’s Sackets Harbor team took the court and lost by 31 to Beaver River.

For 29 straight games, Robbins had been the winning coach. Last season, Sackets Harbor didn’t lose a single game en route to capturing the first state boys basketball title in Frontier League history. Last season, Robbins repeated the winning coach ritual 25 times.

But this season is different.

“I was at home and I thought I was supposed to call the score in,” Robbins said after the Beaver River loss, “and then I realized we lost and I didn’t have to call it in. It’s humbling. You’re not going to have a 25-0 season every year. I’ve talked to a lot of coaches, a lot of veteran coaches, who have given me great advice. Look at it as a challenge.”

Fortunately, Robbins knows something about meeting a challenge. In 2012, Robbins took a team with great promise, with the highest expectations ever placed on a Sackets Harbor squad, and led it to Glens Falls. He brought players full of talent, skill and egos, players who didn’t necessarily get along in their early days on the court, and coached them to a title. He inherited a program developed by his mentor and sent it to heights never achieved by Charlie Bridge, nor any other legendary coach who has ever walked the sidelines in the Frontier League.

For crossing that kind of challenge off his list, Robbins is the Times’ Sports Performer of the Year.

“He took it to the next level,” said Bridge, who handed over the program to his former guard and captain in 2006. “He worked so hard at everything. And he got the kids’ respect right away. As a young coach, that’s not easy. It takes time.”

The last sixth-grade class that Bridge taught before his retirement included the five players — Zach and Alex D’Alessandro, Cameron Allen, Zach Allen and Marshall Smith — who would go on to lead the Patriots to the state championship, a 49-35 victory over Section 10’s Madrid-Waddington in 2012. They were managers for Bridge’s final Sackets Harbor varsity squad.

The group possessed unique talent. Bridge, Robbins, everyone could spot that right away. The players’ elementary school team demolished its opponents, even those from much bigger schools.

“You could see it,” said Charlie Bridge Jr., Bridge’s son, Robbins’s former teammate and the Jefferson Community College basketball coach. “When they were in fifth grade, sixth grade, they were rolling over teams, even teams like Watertown and Indian River. You knew they were going to be really good.”

The team was so good that coaches, parents and fans began to look forward. This team could one day win Sackets Harbor’s first state championship. It was wild talk. Bridge had built the program to the point where it could be a regular contender for a sectional title, winners of eight straight Frontier League crowns. But states? Not even the high-scoring teams featuring Bridge Jr. and Robbins could reach that level.

What made this group so special?

After all, even Bridge, who knew the program better than anyone, had his doubts during those players’ formative years in the sport.

“They were so competitive,” he said. “On more than one night I had to throw one or two of them out of the gym because they were on each other so much. They all had some skill and they all had brains. But they didn’t all get along that well, and I told more than one parent that if they didn’t get where they could play together, they weren’t going to win anything.

“And that’s a compliment to Jeff, that he was able to get those kids together.”

Robbins wanted to be a sports journalist or broadcaster in high school until he took a peer tutoring class — a kid in that class asked if he was going to replace Michael Jordan, who had just retired — and decided teaching was for him. Now an elementary school teacher at Sackets Harbor, like Bridge was, Robbins moved on to play basketball at JCC and SUNY Oswego, learning from coaches Pat Clary and Kevin Broderick. Coaching was a natural progression.

When Robbins took the assistant job under Bridge, he learned the art of teaching small-school students and players.

“(He showed) me a different light, that high school basketball, especially at the D level, is a lot different than college,” Robbins said. “He also showed me how to relate to kids, how to manage games, how to manage a program, too.”

Robbins played for Bridge’s teams that scored in bunches but also were perceived as giving up plenty of points, too, their defensive ability buried under a hail of 3-pointers. The “dungeon”-style gym that hosted Sackets Harbor games helped foster that kind of play. But with a new gym and different players, Robbins adapted his philosophy. He insists that his players know how to shoot — a Bridge trademark — but that they are well-rounded enough to do everything required of a basketball player.

“We like to play uptempo,” he said. “We like to get out, shoot a lot of threes, space the floor offensively and really pressure. And I like to play a pressure defense, if we can. But at the same time, our main focus is a grind-it-out, half-court, defensive-oriented team. That fast break, that transition initiates from getting deflections, getting rebounds. So basketball-wise, that’s my biggest philosophy and has been since Day 1 — play to my players’ strength. We try to groom the kids here that they’re basketball players, not so much pigeon-holed into positions.”

The ability to get his players to compete defensively, a discipline that requires more self-sacrifice than on offense, may have been what propelled Sackets Harbor to a state title. Robbins convinced a team full of supremely confident, offensive stalwarts that defense was sexy, too.

“The thing that Jeff did so well with that group,” Bridge Jr. said, “is that defensively, they could defend the best I’ve ever seen. Jeff got them to defend better than any Sackets team.”

In 2010, Robbins guided the Patriots to the state semifinals in Glens Falls. The seniors on that team were sophomores. The D’Alessandros’ older brother, Nick, was a senior and the top scorer. It was the first team from the Frontier League to ever reach Glens Falls (Lyme made the state semifinals in 1978 before the tournament settled in Glens Falls), and in a lot of ways it was unexpected.

“When Jeffrey took that first team to Glens Falls, it was a shock to everybody,” Bridge said.

Said Robbins: “I think that just kind of opened their eyes that that was possible. And that wasn’t the most talented team ever. It was just that those kids played really hard and really well together.”

By now, everyone in Sackets Harbor was wise to what this program could achieve. The confidence of the team grew and Robbins worked to keep everyone from going off the rails.

“They had a lot of people telling them, ‘you’re going to be state champs in 2012, your senior year,’ and I think that inflated their egos a little bit,” Robbins said, “and I think at times it was my job to try to deflate their egos and bring them down to earth, and I know that sometimes they thought I was Mr. Negativity all the time. But I wanted them to realize they had great potential. Winning the league and sectionals was great, but I knew they had more in them.”

Even Robbins wasn’t sure until that January day when defending state champion New York Mills came to Sackets Harbor for a nonleague game, and to test everything that the town had been saying for the last six years.

Sackets Harbor defeated New York Mills and 6-foot-10 Division I prospect Matt Welch, and their coach was convinced.

“Some people thought I was crazy for scheduling that on senior night,” Robbins said. “You’re supposed to do senior night against a (pushover). But that’s what I wanted to see. I wanted to push these guys and see what they could do. They proved a lot to me and I think to themselves, too.”

The Patriots met New York Mills again in the Section 3 final at the Carrier Dome and won again, thanks to the same confident, bold manner that had brought them to this point.

“At the time, I was like ‘man, I wish we could have slowed it down,’” Robbins said. “But that was the fearless attitude they had. They were in attack mode. And I think in the long run that helped us, the fact that I don’t think there was one time when we were ever on our heels. We were always in attack mode.”

Sackets Harbor won by a single point. The team had grown from a disparate group of independent talents to a cohesive group free of clashing interests. From there, the Patriots moved on to regionals, then Glens Falls, and completed what they started two years before, capturing the championship, something all those standout Sackets Harbor teams could never do.

Robbins’s phone was flooded with messages. Bridge, who lives in Florida now, was one of the first people to call.

“We were at the restaurant after the game and he said that they were going to have to scrape his name off the (gymnasium) floor now,” he said. “But that’ll never happen.”

Robbins’s life was flooded with special moments. Parents and fans serenaded the team with chants as they got off the bus after the state title victory. The town staged a parade for the team when it returned to Sackets Harbor. The team made a trip to Albany to be honored by the State Senate and Assembly.

“I still think back and I don’t know if it’s fully hit me, because it was one of my goals I’ve had and I always knew we could do it, but it just seemed so farther down in the future, almost unattainable,” he said. “ ... I think in 10 years, in 20 years when we do a reunion and see these guys come back and see what kind of people they become — I’ve talked to some coaches who have done it and they said that’s when it really hits you, the impact that you possibly had on their lives.”

Robbins is now using last year’s title as inspiration and a teaching tool for this year’s team.

“We use it as reference, and I think it will always be great reference,” he said. “Not that the kids wouldn’t respect me before, but they know that we won a state championship and what I’m saying works and that instant credibility is going to be there now, I would hope. But it’s a new team and a new challenge.”

Sackets Harbor lost to Class D rival Lyme 56-25 on Friday.

The new challenge is here.

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