The wake-up call comes about 6:30 a.m. for Daakarr Bellfield and 14 basketball teammates at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
Three weeks into the fall semester, a month before practice starts.
They have everything but time to lose. They'd much rather win.
Bellfield drags his 6-foot, 5-inch torso from bed. With a grimace, his first stretch of the day signals the shaping of success. It's a small indicator blending with new indicators every morning as young muscles redefine the formation of a better-built body.
"We're getting there," he says to emerging biceps.
Thirty minutes later, in the college weight room, he's feeding those biceps a breakfast of tension, compressing ounces of mental concentration into waiting sinews of blood and rivets of energy. He's investing in newfound strength for long-term gain.
He looks like he might be enjoying the makeover. Time -- and the scoreboard and the grade book -- will tell.
Two years ago Bellfield and four fellow Raiders got a wake-up call, when they were declared ineligible as the second semester began. The news dashed Coach Jim Russell's hopes for a potential championship season. Raw talent there was; academic discipline there wasn't.
"This year our theme is, 'We're taking care of business'," said Russell ahead of his sixth season as men's basketball coach. "It means we're focused on retention to stay eligible and keep our athletes in school."
Time management is essential, Russell stressed. "From the first day of fall classes (Aug. 26) our guys are lifting weights and doing other conditioning from 7 to 8 a.m., Monday through Thursday. Each night from six to eight they're in a study group. From nine to 10 they're usually playing ball in the gym."
Basketballs bounced at CLC even before the academic year began, as team candidates took advantage of an open gym nicely warmed to facilitate sweat-drenched workouts. They organized themselves, knowing from letters Russell had sent early in the summer that his expectations could be a challenge.
"It's up to them," Russell said. "They'll develop a chemistry without any coaching. Leaders will emerge and help others get going, to make each other work out and share in the work ethic."
Russell said that in successful basketball programs -- including those like CLC that don't offer athletic scholarships -- developing a "family" relationship is paramount. Beyond the short-term gain of outscoring opponents and passing college exams, the members of this family are likely to gain lifelong qualities that otherwise elude the unworthy.
The athletic program has fostered study groups, but staff didn't always monitor the athletes. They'd be in different classrooms. Team captains were responsible. "We needed more consistency," said Russell.
The only designated 2002-2003 captain so far has set an example for academic success. Despite not being able to work out with the team, Justin Heitkamp of Brainerd "takes care of business off the court," said his coach, noting the sophomore's 3.8 grade-point average.
In the fall honor student Heitkamp lofts a much different ball toward its own distinct destination.
"He's our top golfer," said Russell, who coaches men's and women's golf. "He understands the game of basketball so well," he won't miss a beat come Oct. 15 when basketball practice officially begins.
The stepped-up retention effort gets a boost from two assistant basketball coaches, Chris Costello and Nate Hanson, both volunteers.
Costello is employed in the Academic Center for Enrichment, a college support service providing tutors, study groups and computer help. He has coached Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams and is earning a master's degree from St. Cloud State University en route to a head coaching position. Hanson is an elementary teacher in Brainerd.
Until Oct. 15 only four players are allowed to interact with a coach when basketballs are present and that interaction can't exceed eight hours per week. "We have been more focused on providing conditioning tips and coaching them academically," Russell said.
"We are all here to help, and that means everyone on this campus," he said. "The people in Registration, Financial Aid, Admissions, they make sure the paperwork gets done. In the ACE students know they can get help."
Student athletes such as Bellfield of Minneapolis, Daryl Burch of St. Paul and Tony Monson of White Bear Lake face many of the same hurdles as other non-commuting CLC students. They must find a place to live. Russell said community contacts from the Brainerd Sports Boosters and other friends of the college create comfort out of chaos when they assist with the hunt for housing.
"If these students are comfortable they'll stay," Russell said. "In the last few years we've had lots of feedback from the little things we do as a team, such as giving basketball clinics, going to elementary schools, reading to kids, doing things at the Confidence Learning Center."
Such community service tells the public something about priorities and realities. "We're providing these athletes the opportunity," Russell said. "If they use it they'll succeed."
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