by Scott Kindberg
March 17, 2011
Jamestown Graduate Was Born To Coach At Alma Mater
The headline reads, “Jayhawks Do Everything Crerola Asked For,” and the story that follows describes Jamestown Community College’s victory in the NJCAA Region 3 basketball championship game.
The date — March 7, 1981 — is hand-written in the upper right-hand corner and four photos, taken by sports editor Jim Riggs, capture the action in Jamestown CC’s jam-packed Physical Education Complex. The photo at the bottom of the page draws my attention.
It shows dozens and dozens of people gathered under one basket, including several Jamestown CC players who can be seen hoisting a boy toward the rim. The youngster, who has a pair of scissors in his hand, is, according to Riggs’ account, cutting “the final strand of the net while the crowd looks after the Jayhawks’ 75-55 victory over Hilbert.”
That boy, described as the Jayhawks’ mascot, is wearing a T-shirt with the No. 1 on it.
Look closely amidst the sea of humanity, and you can almost detect a smile on 9-year-old Ben Drake’s face.
Fast-forward almost exactly three decades.
There was no smile on Ben Drake’s face prior to Jamestown High School’s Class AA Far West Regional against Irondequoit last Saturday night at the Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester Community War Memorial.
The Red Raiders’ coach, dressed in a neatly dry-cleaned back suit, white shirt and print tie, sat on the bench all alone, his elbows on his knees and his hands folded, a picture of concentration as he watched the Section VI champs warm up.
Jamestown was one win shy of a first-ever trip to the Final Four in Glens Falls and even the normally cool-as-can-be Drake was anxious.
“I had a lot of anticipation for the game because I knew that it was going to be a good game, a close game, just because of the matchup,” he said following practice earlier this week. “You just don’t know how many times you’re going to get an opportunity to go to Glens Falls. … All of us felt like we had a good opportunity if we played well, to take the next step and to make that trip.”
The Red Raiders lived up to Drake’s gut feeling.
Sparked by several huge 3-pointers and a strong defensive stand in the final seconds of overtime, Jamestown, the 11th-ranked team in the state, held off the Eagles 60-58. The Red Raiders (19-3) will now meet No. 2 and defending champion Christian Brothers Academy of Albany in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association semifinal at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the Glens Falls Civic Center. The winner advances to Sunday afternoon’s championship game.
“It’s something,” Drake said, “that even going back to last summer we talked about and joked about, “Is this really going to happen?'”
But Drake’s journey to the North Country — all 370 miles of it — began long, long before 2010.
Growing up on Jamestown’s northside, Drake, his sister, Julie and parents, Dan and Bonnie, lived in a two-family home on Newton Avenue. While they occupied the downstairs, they rented the second floor for several years to Jamestown CC men’s basketball coach Nick Creola.
Drake, who was in elementary school at the time, became attached to all things hoops. Pretty soon, he was attending Jayhawks’ practices and serving as the team’s ballboy. Heck, he was even permitted to be part of Jamestown CC’s pregame layup drill before standing-room-only home crowds.
“When I started doing that and hanging out in that gym, that’s when I really became a gym rat,” he said. “That continued throughout my youth, middle school and high school.
“I knew when I got to high school and started deciding what I wanted to do someday that coaching and continuing to be part of the game was something I really wanted to do.”
After a standout senior season at JHS — he was The Post-Journal’s Player of the Year for the 1989-90 season — Drake continued his academic and athletic career at SUNY Brockport. After four years he finished in the top 10 in 10 different categories, including consecutive games with a 3-point field goal (23, first); career free-throw percentage (.843, second); and career points (1,266, seventh). In combination with strong commitment to the classroom, he was a third-team CoSIDA Academic All-American as a senior, the first Brockport male to be so honored. Four years after graduation from the SUNY school, Drake, who had previously served as athletic director at Keshequa Central School, was named the varsity boys basketball coach at Jamestown High School.
He was 26 years old.
Drake was running the Red Raiders through a practice earlier this week. As he did so, Billy Miley, the junior varsity coach, watched from the baseline.
“All the kids tend to see the time he puts in and it makes them understand they have to ‘bring it,’ whether it’s 7:30 in the morning in the summer or two-hour practices five days a week,” said MIley, who played on Drake’s first Red Raider team in the 1998-99 season. “They respect the fact that they know he’s getting the best out of them.”
Now in his 13th season, Drake, who is also the district’s athletic director, has posted a 224-72 record, including three Section VI championships (1999, 2010 and 2011) and seven Erie County Interscholastic Conference Division 1 crowns.
“He’s very good at what he does,” said senior Joey Campion, who started in the program as a manager when he was a sixth-grader. “He respects everyone and he does everything the right way, especially through hard work. He had that as a player. I’ve seen him play at the Y and he can still (score) 30 points, even in his late 30s.”
On the bench, though, he’s one of the best coaches in Western New York. This postseason, the Red Raiders have knocked off Clarence, Lancaster, Niagara Falls and Irondequoit, earning their long-awaited trip to Glens Falls.
“It’s the organization and detail he puts into practice time,” Miley said, “and having a plan every single day you get to the gym. If you talk to guys who played here and then went on to play at different colleges, they think things run a little better here.”
But Drake readily acknowledges the contributions of his staff, which also includes assistant coach Marty Stockwell, freshman coach Tage Hall and volunteer assistant Tim Anderson. All are JHS alumni who played for the Red Raiders.
“We could have gone other places,” Hall said, “but we never thought about leaving.”
Noted Drake: “I have a lot of confidence in those guys. They’re all great coaches and any of them could easily take over their own program somewhere else. … It’s certainly not a one-man operation.”
Stockwell, who made the call to switch offensive strategy in the fourth quarter of Jamestown’s come-from-behind win over Niagara Falls in the sectional final, said Drake is always seeking input.
“He asks what we think and what we see,” said Stockwell, who has assisted Drake since the 2000-01 season. “Four eyes, six eyes, eight eyes are better than two. He’s more than open to listen to suggestions and go with what we say.”
The Red Raiders’ focus this weekend will be squarely on the task at hand, but Campion knows there’s plenty more he’ll take away from a program he’s been associated with for seven years, including the last four on the varsity.
“He’s just a great friend,” he said of Drake. “He looks out for us, he cares about our families and he’s there for us.”
Junior Jaysean Paige, who will be one of the most-watched players at the Glens Falls Civic Center this weekend, said Drake preaches the importance of respect and responsibility
“He wants us to be a better player, on and off the court,” Paige said, “and he tells us the importance of character. … It’s more important to be a good person.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jamestown defeated Christian Brothers Academy in the NYSPHSAA semifinals in 2011, but lost to Mount Vernon in the championship game.