Solon 2019 graduate Mike Bekelja will be taking his basketball talents to Duquesne University to join the Division I Dukes in Pittsburgh.
After taking a postgraduate prep year to better himself on and off the court at the International Sports Academy in Willoughby, as well as reopening his recruiting process, Bekelja made his college decision official on Tuesday.
At Duquesne, Bekelja will join his older adopted brother Sincere Carry, a 2018 Solon graduate. Carry is a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard who led the Dukes in minutes and assists this season under head coach Keith Dambrot.
“Coach Dambrot has been pretty much watching me this whole year, my whole prep year, and we’ve been in touch this whole time,” Bekelja said. “He’s told me how much he likes my game and things like that, and some spots opened up. So, he went ahead and offered me the scholarship yesterday (on Monday).”
Bekelja, who had his world shook this past June, with his intentions to play NCAA Division II college hoops at Fairmont State University falling through, now has the opportunity to not only hoop at the Division I level but also to rejoin forces with his brother – the two led the Comets to a Division I state runner-up campaign in 2018.
“It really means everything to me,” Bekelja said. “I’m so excited about this opportunity. I can’t wait to get out there and just do my thing and have my brother by my side. I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Bekelja didn’t have much of a recruiting process in high school.
The 6-foot-1 guard made his verbal commitment to Fairmont State, just 10 miles outside Morgantown, West Virginia, and to head coach Joe Mazzulla following his sophomore season with the Comets.
Bekelja was a top reserve off the bench his freshman year, draining a pair of 3-pointers to help No. 5-seed Solon upset No. 1-seed Mentor, 64-62, in the 2016 playoffs for the Comets’ first district championship in nine years.
And as a sophomore, Bekelja became a full-time starter, averaging 15 points per game while shooting 40 percent from downtown, to help the Comets post their most triumphant record, 17-8, in 10 years.
He didn’t waste any time picking a college after that.
“I had committed before my junior year of high school,” Bekelja said. “That pretty much took away my whole recruiting process. So, now I’ve been able to go through it for real this time.”
At that time, Fairmont State was coming off a 34-3 campaign with a runner-up finish in the Division II NCAA tournament and had just hired Mazzulla as its head coach.
Fast-forward two years, to June 2019, Bekelja was one of four incoming freshmen who arrived on campus for summer school and training at Fairmont State. But on June 23, Bekelja had his world shook when it was announced that Mazzulla was leaving Fairmont State to take an assistant coaching job with the Boston Celtics.
“That was definitely tough,” Bekelja said. “Coach Joe (Mazzulla) is a really good coach and a really good person, which was probably the main reason for all four of the incoming freshmen that were going. That was pretty much the big reason we decided to go there, because we really wanted to play for him.
“We knew how good of a coach he was, and we knew he just wins. So, that’s a big thing for us. After he left, there was a lot of uncertainty, because we just didn’t know who was going to be our coach and what other players were going to leave and those types of things.”
After committing to Fairmont State in 2017, Bekelja went on to average 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game his junior year, when the Comets went 27-2 to finish Division I state runners-up for their best finish in program history.
And as a senior, Bekelja took over the spotlight at Solon – recording seven 25-plus-point games – with the graduation of Carry, as well as fellow sharpshooter Trent Williams injured for nine games. The Comets still went 16-9, losing a two-point battle against archrival Mentor in district play.
Certainly, Bekelja improved his stock in the recruiting market those two seasons, but he stayed true to his commitment to Fairmont State and coach Mazzulla.
“I was down at Fairmont State for a couple of weeks last summer, and the departure of coach Joe Mazzulla kind of pushed me into thinking of different things that I wanted to do,” Bekelja said. “So, I decided that ISA would be the best opportunity for me, just to build a new relationship with another coach, for new schools to look at me and for me to grow and become a better player.”
Founded in 2018, the International Sports Academy combines year-round sport and performance training with an academic curriculum through Andrews Osborne Academy, in Willoughby. It’s open to student-athletes in seventh grade through their postgraduate year.
While ISA also offers an on-campus boarding program, Bekelja instead moved to a single-bedroom apartment in Willoughby and took online courses through Cuyahoga Community College, he said.
“Yeah, it took a little bit of time to adjust,” he said. “I definitely wanted to be a part of a college team and be on a college campus and have those experiences. But, in the long run, it definitely was the best decision for me.”
On the postgraduate team, under head coach Fabian Lara, Bekelja said he specifically sought out to better himself on defense, off-the-dribble shots, mid-range shots and, of course, his trusty 3-pointers. He also wanted to deepen his range for the college 3-point line.
Bekelja finished his postgraduate season averaging 25 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.5 steals per game. He shot 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep on 7.4 attempted 3-pointers per game.
“I was our first option (on offense),” he said. “It was a lot different, because, even during my senior year at Solon, I still looked the most just to create plays for others and then for myself. But at ISA, they wanted me to focus on getting my shots first and then creating for others.”
The postgraduate team at ISA was basically like an all-star squad that had to continually work on chemistry to come together as a cohesive unit, Bekelja said.
“I just know that we got better throughout the year,” he said. “Like, we really struggled in the beginning, like playing wise and just being a team. But, throughout the year, we got a lot better and a lot closer, and I’d just say that’s the biggest highlight for me.”
Through an extra year of exposure and reopening his recruitment process, Bekelja fielded more than 10 Division II offers, as well as interest from several Division I programs, he said.
But when the scholarship offer came on Monday from coach Dambrot to play Division I hoops with his older brother at Duquesne, Bekelja said it wasn’t an opportunity he was about to pass up.
“I feel relief now that the decision is made,” Bekelja said. “But the work continues. Immediately after he called me and offered me, I went and worked out for two or three straight hours. The work isn’t going to stop for me now that I have this opportunity.”