A Pioneer for Frankford

The face of ded­ic­a­tion: Frank­ford ju­ni­or guard Joe Rick­etts was the dif­fer­ence maker in last Thursday’s 64-51 play­off win over North­east. Rick­etts scored 12 of his game-high 15 points in a cru­cial fourth quarter. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

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 em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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