Ridgebacks ready for historic hoops debut

Ontario Tech’s Teni Thompson and Graddy Kanku during a scrimmage on Thursday night. Photo credit: Shaun Mcleod

Coach Greg Francis has spent the last year carefully constructing the inaugural Ontario Tech men’s basketball team.

Ontario Tech announced on May 24, 2018 that the school was starting a basketball a men’s and women’s basketball program to compete in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA). After a year of planning and trying to recruit players to a new program, the team is just a couple of weeks away from opening the doors on its inaugural regular season on Oct. 25 on the road at Laurentian.

It’s been a challenging process for Francis, who also coached university team at Alberta (2009-2012) and Waterloo (2012-2015) and spent the last three years as technical director for Canada Basketball.

“It’s tough because you don’t have a body of work as a school,” Francis said. “But the guys we have are the guys who bought in and are like-minded with me.”

The search for players led the team to add five transfer students: Rahsean Neil-Simpson from Lakehead University, Jésus Illonga from College La Cité, Janath Kumar from York University, Ammar Hassan from Nipissing University and Daavyd Marquez-Relih from Durham College.

Teni Thompson, a former Pickering High School player, made the team through open tryouts.

“It’s been great,” said Thompson. “It’s been a long time since I actually played basketball; about three years.”

The team struggled early in practices but has started to come together recently.

“When we first got together it was a little rough, not knowing what people could do,” said Graddy Kanku, a freshman guard from Ottawa, Ont. “But playing with them every day, getting better with all my teammates. I really feel like we’ve come a long way.”

The Ridgebacks have started bonding off the court as well, with at least four players wearing pink lemonade coloured Adidas Harden 4 shoes to the start the preseason. The trend started when the team went to the Oshawa Centre to buy new shoes. The pink shoe caught their eye and the players bought the remaining stock from the Adidas outlet. Currently, some players are waiting for the store to restock the shoe so more players can get them.

“They ran out of my shoe size,” said Thompson. “You snooze, you lose.”

Team members have modest expectations for their first year of play in the strong Ontario University Athletics (OUA) loop, with good reason. Since 2003, OUA powerhouse Carleton has won 14 Canadian championships. Another OUA school, Brock, won the national title in 2008, with other OUA programs such as Ryerson, Ottawa, Lakehead and Guelph reaching the title game in the past 16 years.

“I’d like to win as many games as possible,” Kanku said with a smile. “And also, to gain experience with my teammates, to build our legacy as a whole.”

Ontario Tech men's basketball coach Greg Francis shares a teaching moment with Chris Ogie during the game against the York Lions on Friday. Photo credit: Shaun McLeod

Francis was also reserved in what he expects from his team.

“I want to set a culture. How hard we are going to work, what kind of student-athletes we are going to be, what kind of men we are going to be. I feel like once we do that, once you get an identity, then wins will come, but we’re not starting by talking about wins,” said Francis.

Fans of the Ridgeback can expect to see a defensive-minded team that will grow offensively throughout the season, he says.

“My college coach used to tell me ‘you’re not a rookie once you get back from Christmas,’” said Francis, who attended Fairfield University in Connecticut from 1994-1997 and played on Canada’s entry at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. “That’s what we have to do as a group. It’s very challenging but as of right now I like the way these guys are trying.”

The team played its first two preseason games this weekend, losing 80-57 to the York Lions, and 82-58 to the Concordia Stingers.

A.J. Cummings scored 14 points as the team’s top scorer against the York Lions. Ammar Hassan was also two points away from a double-double with eight points and 12 rebounds.

Graddy Kanku filled the stat sheet in the loss to Concordia scoring 13 points and adding seven rebounds as the team’s leader in both categories. Kanku also had the team’s only block.

Coach Francis doubled down on his vision for the future after the games.

“We have to get better, if we play a certain way, we’ll lose all of our games like this. Or we can try to get really good, lose some now to win later.”

Ontario Tech begins the season on Oct. 25 in Sudbury, Ont. against the two-time U SPORTS men’s basketball player of the Year Kadre Gray and the Laurentian Voyageurs. Ridgeback fans can see them live at their home opener in the Campus Recreation and Wellness Centre against the Queen’s Gaels on Nov. 3.