Success found Ray Ricks early as a student at Northwest Christian School. It has stayed with him since his return and subsequent hiring as head boys basketball coach nearly a decade ago.
He played a role as a senior transfer when the Crusaders won their first State B championship in 1989. Ten years later he became part of the school’s administrative team and subsequently its basketball coach.
Northwest Christian (24-0) next week will make its sixth straight state appearance and could play in its sixth title game since ’89 if things fall right.
“To be honest, we really try to downplay the record,” Ricks said. “It’s fun, but (winning) takes focus off the team. The mission is we want them to play with strong character work as a team and play hard with self-sacrifice. To me that’s the greater joy of coaching.”
Altruism aside, the Crusaders are gifted and successful, a team built around players who have experienced a high level of competition away from the Bi-County League. They’ve won their last 53 games and the last three State 2B titles, equaling Brewster’s record in the 1970s, while compiling a four-year 109-5 record.
And they might not be the best team Ricks has coached. In 2004 while playing in the Northeast A League, Northwest Christian placed second in the State 1A tournament to Brewster (and ex-Gonzaga University standout David Pendergraft), losing 59-52 in the title game.
“That maybe was my most talented team,” Ricks said.
It was also the catalyst for this group of players, who traveled through the Northwest Christian ranks beginning in elementary school.
They witnessed that success and have worked to make it a tradition, Ricks said. They have exceeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Chase Ramey, Paul Huffman and Jared Descoteaux are four-year varsity players who have been on all three Crusaders championship teams. Cameron Stephens and Matt Zandbergen joined them as sophomores. Nine players are in their second season. This is the first year that Ricks has started five seniors.
The high-scoring Ramey averages 15.2 points per game and has scored more than 1,500 points in four years as a starter. Sandbergen, a 6-foot-4 post, averaged 15 points a game and was tournament MVP last year. His stats are down in part because of an ankle sprain that sidelined him for four games.
The Crusaders have had only three wins of less than double digits. Their average victory margin is 27 points per game. Seventeen players have seen varsity time. Seven players average six points or better per game.
“It was difficult to pick out a varsity,” Ricks said. “We’ve been going back and forth even to the last day before the tournament picture. “We have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the hole, which makes us stronger than most B teams that have one or two. We’ve had some lopsided wins and have had to keep them motivated. That has been a challenge, to be honest.”
Intensity has improved since a team meeting prior to district when goals were changed and seniors had their say.
How did Northwest Christian basketball attain this level? The Crusaders had made 10 state appearances between 1978 and 1996, winning two titles. Ricks, a Wilbur native, had his coaching start at Valley Christian School before being asked to become part of the NWC administrative team. He is in his ninth year as head coach.
But he downplays his role in this current run of success, saying it is a convergence of several things and starts at the elementary level.
“This is just frosting on the cake,” he said.
“Part of it is we have talent. Make no mistake, we are one of the larger B schools and have more kids to pick from. Most of our kids, for example, have come up through the Spokane AAU system.”
That is an area from kindergarten on that has been stressed at Northwest Christian. This senior class has been immersed at high levels of AAU, playing along with Spokane’s best.
“Chase (who is headed to Whitworth) and Matt have played on the top traveling team and would be competitive in a larger school setting,” Ricks said.
Huffman is a 6-foot-2, 240-pounder who was a two-way lineman in football at Mead; Cameron and Descoteaux, a Whitworth-bound golfer, also have basketball backgrounds. Behind them, the well at NWC is deep. Junior Daniel Kuiper and sophomore Cole Ramey are among eight players who have scored in double figures this year.
They are also bright.
“They’re often more interested in solving a Rubik’s Cube together,” Ricks said.
“We’ve had great kids over the last five years. This is a special group. They’re a dream team – not just on the basketball level, but with their attitudes and intellect. It’s pretty fantastic group.”
He said the key is keeping them motivated and unselfish. Maybe, over the final five games, they can accomplish even more special things.