Whoever told Joe Ricketts that the early bird gets the worm can be assured he took it to heart.
While most high schoolers are milking those precious extra minutes of sleep before school, Ricketts is already hard at work. Now, in the thick of the high school basketball postseason, he is beginning to see the fruits of his labor.
Ricketts, a junior shooting guard at Frankford High School, rises from his bed before 6 a.m. almost every school day. He makes the short walk from his home near Pratt and Oakland Streets and spends at least an hour practicing what he does best — hoisting jump shots — before classes start at 7:30.
In a tightly contested first-round home playoff contest against Northeast last Thursday, Ricketts appeared as if he had hit the snooze button a few extra times that morning, missing eight of his first nine shots through three quarters. Undeterred, and with Frankford holding a slim three-point lead heading into the final frame, Ricketts erupted for 12 of his game-high 15 points and sent the Pioneers to the next round by way of a 64-51 victory.
Northeast, which had won nine in a row, ended an exciting season under first-year coach Ira Stern. Frankford advanced to face Bartram on Tuesday, a game played after the Times went to press. (The Pioneers fell in a 52-51 heartbreaker, as Bartram’s Khayri Washington’s three-pointer with 13 seconds to go eliminated Frankford; Aaron McFarlan and Tyree Tucker each missed on last-second opportunities to win the game.)
“I think it just impacts our team positively, being here early in the morning,” Ricketts said. “It just makes us a better team, and overall better people in life.”
Ricketts said better “people” instead of “person” because he’s not alone in the gym all those early mornings. The operation’s ringleader, Ricketts has also recruited teammates Sterling Walker, Shaquil Rone, Aleem Griffith and Andre Coach to join him most days. Ricketts was the fourth quarter star against Northeast, but it was Walker’s three-pointer from the top of the key as time expired in the third that broke a 37-37 tie. That, said Ricketts, was just the boost he and the rest of the team needed.
“That really woke me up,” he said of Walker’s big shot. “I knew I had to lead my team. We all believe in each other, which is why this is so fun.”
As for his early shooting woes, which included a handful of clear looks at the basket from the left wing, Ricketts did what any true shooter does when things aren’t going well: he kept shooting.
“I just didn’t worry about it,” he said. “Let it roll right off. I don’t get too mad or frustrated. I just believe in my form and my shot, and I just focus on the next play.”
In a frenzied atmosphere between two local rivals, Walker’s shot sent the home crowd into a tizzy. Ricketts then calmed things down and guided them home the rest of the way.
“Talk about a shooter’s mentality … that kid’s got it,” Frankford head coach Dave Huzzard said of Ricketts. “He doesn’t get nervous.”
Huzzard also spoke of how rare it is to have a player so committed to getting better that he’d put in so much extra time in the gym, often before the sun has risen.
“These guys are here every day at 6 or 6:30,” Huzzard said. “There have been days where it’s pouring rain and they’re still standing there waiting for me to open the door to the gym. It goes a long way.”
Although the entire team hasn’t joined Ricketts for his early-morning endeavors, Frankford isn’t suffering in the way of team chemistry. Huzzard has the benefit of going “nine or ten deep every game,” with the added luxury of each player having a clearly defined role. In addition to Ricketts and sophomore Walker in the backcourt, the team boasts difference makers in guards Quadire Truesdale (ball-handler) and Tyree Tucker (shooter), slasher Aaron McFarlan and senior big men Donald Robinson and Denzel Turbeville.
“It took awhile for us to get there,” acknowledged Huzzard, whose team lost five in a row earlier this season. “We had too many guys trying to do things we didn’t want them in there for. Every single guy who was out there contributed in some way, and that’s nice. Believe me, I don’t take it for granted.”
Though sloppy at times, Frankford got better as the game progressed. The Pioneers scored just six points in the first quarter, but wore down the undersized Vikings with tenacious defense and by crashing the boards to generate second-chance opportunities.
“That was a great game,” Stern said right before he boarded the team bus. “We’re going to find some size somewhere in this city, and we’ll be back.”
The Vikings’ exit leaves Frankford as the only Northeast Philly boys team left in the expansive Public League playoff tournament, which will be down to eight teams on Tuesday after starting with 58. The Pioneers would have to win three more games just to qualify for the Feb. 23 championship game at the Liacouras Center, but for now that doesn’t matter. They have already advanced further than last year’s eight-win group, and Ricketts and company seem to be playing their best basketball of the season right now.
Even though the Pioneers are taking it one game at a time, Ricketts admitted he’s seen the school’s football and baseball players in their championship attire from this past year and wouldn’t mind the basketball team crashing that party as well. Several football players, including running back Damion Samuels and lineman Kadar Jones, helped lead Frankford’s sizable, noisy student section.
“That’s why Frankford is called the home of champions,” he said. “We all support each other no matter what.”
Ricketts, who comes off the bench for Huzzard, won’t fail in getting his team to the promised land due to lack of effort. His 11-plus points per game are tops on a balanced team that is hungry for more.
As Huzzard said after the game, “I know Joe and the other guys will forget about this one and be right back in here the next morning.”
“Stay focused, confident and aggressive … that’s what we have to do,” Ricketts said. “If we keep a good head on our shoulders, we should finish strong and be a good team next year, too. We all know what we do best, and when we put it all together it works out for us.
“That’s the whole point of the extra practice. We knew the extra work would help us; now, we hope it gets us to the championship.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org