EAST LANSING — When confidants convinced Juan Rickman to take over Ferndale’s basketball program, part of the appeal was that it was steeped in tradition — but that success was far enough in the past to leave the current program a blank slate.
Four years – and two trips to the Division 2 Final Four – later, this list has started to get a little chalky, but there’s still plenty of room to write a proper ending.
An end still in suspense, after a second consecutive defeat in the semi-finals.
“I think we just have to keep building, man. … I just feel good to be in a place where you know, Dwayne Stephens was, he’s a friend of mine, Cornell Mann, who both supported me and convinced me to take the job and a rich tradition. I grew up on Rashad Phillips’ dad’s (REACH) program,” Rickman said, listing the three former Ferndale players — now Michigan State associate head coach, Missouri assistant coach, and coach and analyst at respected basketball player – who had influenced his decision.
“Our program is expanding. And you know, we’re going to keep growing and we’re going to keep building and keep being a fixture in our state. So I feel good about that. And I also feel good that the kids are coming back too.
The Eagles (21-4) are losing just two seniors from the roster that lost 82-71 to Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Division 2 semi-finals for the second consecutive season. But those two players – Jason Drake and Mr. Basketball runner-up Trey Lewis – combined to score 60% of the points for a Ferndale team that averaged 65 per game.
Lewis was the first piece of the jigsaw in Ferndale for Rickman, who had previously set up successful programs at Detroit Crockett and East English, coaching four other Mr. Basketball candidates.
“My first year here at Ferndale, he was one of the showpieces. He helped me build a program, side by side, you know, with us going to two semi-finals, he was a huge part of that, and he just bought and made our program attractive and made our program, you know, kind of stand and build our brand,” Rickman said of the Loyola (Chicago) signee.
“We always talk about building a culture. And you know, for the kids, make them tough, coachable, gym rats and make sure they follow directions, appreciate the time, and understand that deadlines are important. And those are the essentials for you, getting our kids ready for college. We have a varsity equipment program and like I said, Trey Lewis embodied it and he bought into it.
Drake arrived two years later, having started his preparatory career at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
After Ferndale went 16-9 and 12-9 in Rickman’s first two seasons, they went 35-9 the next two, winning back-to-back OAA Red Crowns and the program’s first two regional titles since 1985.
The next step – winning the program’s first state title since 1966 – will have to be accomplished without Drake and Lewis, but that may not be as far away as it seems.
“What I learned is, you know…Trey and Jason Drake, their personalities are so big on the floor that a lot of kids just defer to them. With them gone, the rest of the kids games are going to grow, you know, and I think we’ll be able to make up for a lot of that infraction,” Rickman said. “I think you’ll see Cameron Reed improve a lot. The kid who walked out with a torn meniscus, when he comes back, Trenton Ruth will be much better. I think Chris Williams will be much better. And Caleb Renfroe isn’t too far behind Treyvon and Jason Drake, and when he’s back, you’ll see him take leaps and bounds as well.
A junior, Renfroe made an appearance late in the quarter-final win over Pontiac Notre Dame Prep – his first game after a knee injury – then played 13 minutes in the semi-finals, scoring five points.
“He just started training maybe three weeks ago. We were just taking our time. He was actually exonerated possibly at the end of January. But you know, we didn’t want to mess with that. So once we saw he was able to sustain a bit, we thought we’d give him a few minutes here and there. He said he was good, so we let him play,” Rickman said. “Trouble forced him to play more than we wanted them to play today.”