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MIDDLEBURY — At 26, Northridge rookie boss Ronnie Thomas is decidedly the youngest boys basketball head coach in the area. In fact, five other area head coaches have been in such roles longer than Thomas has been alive.
Thomas is hardly nervous about it, though, which is a good thing, because at 6-foot-10, he’s also decidedly the tallest around here, and it wouldn’t be easy for him to hide.
“I think any coach in the state has some nerves, but other than that, I really don’t have time to be nervous,” Thomas says. “My worry is my team’s daily improvement. We’re working on fine-tuning a lot of things, and then (as a head coach), you’re also working on a lot of other things, like shoes and cameras. Fortunately, our administration’s been great on those things.”
Thomas, a 2005 Northridge graduate, was elevated from Raider assistant in mid-June, seven weeks after Jason Ridge resigned to become an assistant principal at Whitko.
Thomas inherits a 10-11 club with four returning starters, including star forward Nate Ritchie, who earned Truth All Area first-team honors last season as a sophomore. The 6-foot-6 Ritchie averaged 18.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He shot 52 percent on 2s and 77 percent at the line.
Sam Ahonen, Joey Ganyard and Austin Moniot are also back, as is sophomore Pete Smith, a small but dangerous shooter.
Without wanting to be too specific, Thomas hints at the Raiders being more pressure-oriented on defense than in recent years and more up-tempo on offense.
Northridge opens a week from tonight with its annual Thanksgiving eve game against visiting Central, this time as part of a girl-boy varsity doubleheader.
Being your first year as a head coach, how has the transition gone?
“In my mind, it’s gone really well. Being on the staff last year, I already had some ideas about the guys, their strengths and weaknesses. There was already a cohesiveness built in. Now, the X’s and O’s, that’s different, but the kids are learning pretty quickly. A coach couldn’t have a better group of kids for a first year. They’re soaking everything in, they come to practice and they play incredibly hard, and with us being a bit undersized, especially in the NLC, that cohesiveness and hard work are going to be important.”
Who are the prospective starters and what do they bring?
“Our top six are pretty much set. Obviously, Nate Ritchie is back. He’s 6-6 and the best leaper in the area. He can do a wide range of things for us. Offensively, he can score from basically every spot. He’s probably the best passing big man around and he rebounds. The challenge for him this year is to see what he can do defensively, consistently. He’s shown flashes of growth there. Sam Ahonen’s a junior point guard and about as tough as they come. He leads both by mouth and by example. He has the ability to score in multiple ways and guard multiple positions. Joey Ganyard is a senior starter. He’s rock solid in that he knows what’s going on out there, is rarely out of position, knows his role. He’s worked incredibly hard on his game and in the weight room. Austin Moniot is also rock solid. He can guard 1 through 5, and he’s dangerous on the perimeter. If his feet are set, it’s going down. He brings some savvy on offense and some toughness on defense. They all bring toughness. That’s what I like about this team. Right now, the fifth starter is Pete Smith. He came up and played some varsity last year as a freshman. He’s a knock-down shooter and works his butt off defensively. And then probably our first guy off the bench is Arick Doberenz. He’s one those tough defenders, probably our best offensive rebounder and has improved his offense.”
In what ways, defensively and offensively, might Northridge be most similar or dissimilar to last year?
“On defense, we’re looking to pressure the ball more. We’re not the biggest team, but we have some quickness and speed on the perimeter. We really need to bring the mentality of being defensive players first. Offensively, we’ll be a little different, but I don’t want to get too far into that before we’ve played a game. I think we have some speed and might want to use that in the open floor. We have some guys who can get to the rim and knock down shots. The main thing is we never want to let our offense dictate our defense. We’re hoping our defense causes some of our offense.”
Again with the change in coaches, have goals been discussed?
“Our goal every year is going to be to win the sectional. Winning a sectional at (Elkhart’s) North Side Gym is something that would be special and something we’ve talked about from day one. We want to be that team that makes a run at ending something that hasn’t been done by Northridge in a very long time. Northridge hasn’t won a sectional at North Side since 1975.”
(For the record, the Raiders left the Elkhart Sectional after 1991, then returned in 2008 on becoming a Class 4A school. From 1992 to 2007, they won three single-class sectionals at Goshen and three 3A sectionals at NorthWood.)
By the numbers
Regulars returning for the Raiders, matching the most in the area. That includes Nate Ritchie, whose 18.8 points per game last season were best among Elkhart County returnees. The one regular gone is graduated All-Area second-teamer Gavin Blyly (14.6).
Games Northridge lost last season by four points or fewer on the way to going 10-11 overall.
No. Player Pos. Ht. Yr.
10 Collin Utley G 5-9 So.
12 Pete Smith G 5-9 So.
14 Sam Ahonen G 6-1 Jr.
20 Arick Doberenz F 6-0 Sr.
22 Michael Presnell F 6-1 Sr.
30 Austin Moniot G 6-0 Sr.
32 Joey Ganyard G 6-1 Sr.
34 Tom Morrison G 6-2 So.
40 Nate Ritchie F 6-6 Jr.
50 Shannon Baker F 6-3 Sr.
Coach: Ronnie Thomas (first season).
Assistants: John Wysong, Troy Carson, Rich Toth.
21 — Central. 24 — at Westview. 30 — SB Riley.
4 — Jimtown. 7 — Angola. 14 — Goshen (c). 28 — NIC/NLC Shootout — vs. Penn at Goshen. 29 — NIC/NLC Shootout — at SB St. Joseph.
1 — vs. Columbia City at Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne (varsity only, 4:45 p.m.). 4 — at Warsaw (c). 11 — NorthWood (c). 15 — at Penn. 19 — at Memorial (c). 25 — Plymouth (c). 26 — at Fairfield.
2 — at Wawasee (c). 7 — at Concord (c). 9 — at West Noble. 15 — at Lakeland. 22 — DeKalb.
(c) — Denotes Northern Lakes Conference game.
Points: Nate Ritchie 18.8*, Sam Ahonen 8.7, Joey Ganyard 4.8.
Rebounds: Ritchie 8.1*, Ahonen 4.0, Ganyard 3.2.
Assists: Ahonen 3.9*, Ganyard 2.1, Ritchie 2.1.
Steals: Ritchie 1.4*, Ganyard 1.1, Ahonen 0.8.
* — Denotes also led last season’s team overall.