NANAIMO — Ask Grayson Ritzand to tell you the story of how he has become a chiseled, semi-ambidextrous senior varsity forward with level of maturity which seemingly overshadows even his own voluminous scoring average, and it almost seems like you’re privy to plot lines of some comic book super-hero origin story-in-the-making.
That’s the feeling you get after talking for even a few minutes with the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Grade 10 hoops sensation who is not only averaging 34 points and 12 rebounds per game this season for Nanaimo’s Wellington Wildcats, but has led them into battle this season in the ultra-tight Vancouver Island Triple-A zone despite the fact that he’s only 15, and won’t being turning 16 until almost three months after the current season is complete.
If all that sounds like a heavy load, Ritzand has shown he’s up for the challenge.
“I have not had a kid with that good of a work ethic,” begins Wildcats’ head coach Luke Letham of Ritzand, who opened his Grade 10 season back in November as a player ready show the new dimensions to his game after debuting at the senior level in 2022-23 as an inside-scoring sensation.
“He was named an alternate to the B.C. Under-15 team this past summer, and we had chats on how hard it is to make that team.” Letham continued. “And instead of taking it as a slight, he worked that much harder to come back even better and stronger this year.”
And now it’s all dove-tailed into February, where high school basketball basketball’s defining plotline is inevitably centred around the battle to not only make the provincial championship draw, but to seize on that exclusive invitation by doing a dance deep into the days of March Madness.
But like so many other teams around B.C., Wellington’s ticket is far from being stamped as a sure thing.
Yes, they are among the contenders, yet even with three Vancouver Island berths to Triple A provincials, this year’s field is chalk full of talent, led by crosstown powerhouse and No. 4-ranked Dover Bay, and a pair of honourable mentions in Campbell River’s Carihi Tyees and the Mark Isfeld Ice of Courtenay.
Simply pit, there are simply no guarantees.
And thus the more you learn about the journey of Ritzand and the underdog Wildcats, the more perspective you gain on the level of dedication put forth on a daily basis by one our province’s rising young talents.
READY TO SHOULDER THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION
It’s an understatement to say that fitness and nutrition are a way of life at the Ritzand family home.
And so when Grayson Ritzand was named an alternate to Basketball B.C.’s aforementioned provincial Under-15 team and learned he wouldn’t be able to help his team compete at the national championships in August at Bishops University in Sherbrooke, Que., the intensity of his summer workouts came along an entirely different trajectory.
Perhaps a whole gear up?
“I took it up two gears to be honest,” Ritzand began. “I dealt with (not making the team) and then I started to train like an absolutle madman, basically from the moment I woke up in the morning.”
Brian Lennox, both a family friend and his former Grade 8 coach at Wellington, would keep the gym open for him to put up endless shots.
“Then VIU (Vancouver Island University) invited me up to scrimmage four times a week, and I loved playing against the older guys,” Ritzand laughed. “They’d kick my ass but it really helped me with my game, with my IQ, all those little details like getting hands in the lanes. And the big stuff, too, like getting stronger and banging more in the post.”
The rest of the time?
You could say that Ritzand spent the majority of his summer like most teenagers his age, heading out and relaxing, say, in the garage.
He did just that, but in this case there was one very big difference.
“Our garage is all cleared out and it’s a huge gym with like 4,000 pounds of weights,” Ritzand says. “We’ve got the squat rack, bench press, leg press… everything you can imagine a young gym rat would need, and it’s there for me anytime I want. Free. No charge.”
And getting back to that theme of comic book super-hero origins?
“My mom is a personal trainer, and she is also a world-record holder in lots of power lifts and dead lifts,” he says of Mariam Ritzand, whose vast experience as a bodybuilder have been lovingly passed down to both Grayson and his Grade 6 sister Amya.
Add his dad Scott, also a power lifter, to the mix and the Family Riztand could pose for a health and fitness magazine cover.
“We all work out as a family,” Grayson explains.
BOTH HANDS ON DECK
The late, great Yogi Berra once uttered the immortal line “…I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.”
Grayson Ritzand might not meet the dictionary’s precise definition with his level of ambidexterity, yet there is no denying that a childhood injury to his left arm played a role in what might be described as his own unique brand of mix-handedness.
“When I was five, I got pushed off a trampoline and fell in a weird way and I broke both of the bones in my (left) arm,” remembers Ritzand. “They were going to (operate), but they let it heal with a cast and it healed funny.”
Ten years later, it has given him one of his basketball super-powers.
“I can turn my left arm in really weird ways,” he continues of the torque he is able to get at the release point of his still-developing jumper.
As a result?
“I think I can get a way better flick with my left hand, and that is why I shoot with left-handed. I tried to shoot right when I was six or seven, but I would always think in my head ‘What is happening?’ It just felt uncomfortable. It was like you were going to throw a pitch with your off hand.”
In a sene you could call him semi-ambidextrous.
“Because I’m right-handed in everything else,” he explains. “I am good passing with both hands. If it’s a bullet pass over someone, I’ll whip it with my right hand. Bounce passes are with my right hand. But I am good passing with both hands. Any jump shot is with my left hand, but with dunks, it’s funny. My preference is to put it down with both hands or my right hand.”
Yet he has dunked with his left hand, and he can shoot the jump hook with either hand.
“And if you ask me to throw you a football, I’ll throw it with my right hand.”
APPRECIATING THE GAME WITH A SCOUT’S EYE
OK, so let’s sum things up.
The eldest child of parents with a penchant for weight training later realizes that a childhood injury is something of a figurative talisman on his journey of growth in the sport of basketball.
There is no fiction involved in acknowledging how both factors have helped Grayson Ritzand, yet none of it would matter a lick if he didn’t have his competitive zeal and his outright love for the game, both of which he has shared with his Wellington Wildcats teammates.
Those are the natural traits that the best high school players in B.C. have always led with, and as long as they are present, coaches will always feel better speaking to the other things that make special players special.
“Grayson’s main thing is how powerful he is,” Letham begins. “His athleticism mixed with his strength, I think, is what makes him so unstoppable. It’s not just his jumping. He’s also just a gritty player. He is not shying away from contact. He’s getting triple-teammed at times.”
Within that, playing with his young and talented front-court teammates like 6-foot-9 Grade 11 Brayden Savage and 6-foot-7 Grade 10 Jackson Peters, Ritzand has grown along with the rest of the roster, continuing to bring a more well-rounded ‘open-floorness’ to his game by stepping further and further away from the paint.
“He’s really seeing the whole floor,” adds Letham of Ritzand, whose backcourt mates include the likes of Grade 10 Noah Robertson, Grade 11 Joe Madill and senior forwards Jacob Merilees and Max Hurren.
“I couldn’t fault him last season when every time he got the ball he was looking to go to the rim and score as a Grade 9 because that is hard to instill in a kid,” the coach reasons. “We didn’t want to stop that.
“But now, he is seeing the double- and triple-teams and he knows that he can rely on his teammates to pass the ball to,” Letham adds, especially of a frontcourt which has been made doubly dangerous by the growth of Savage, who since Christmas has taken a huge leap in performance, reflected by the fact that he has averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks per game over the past six weeks. “Grayson is seeing the floor and he is adjusting.”
And quite incredibly, three-and-a-half months before his 16th birthday, Ritzand has already scored 1,000 points at the senior varsity level.
“By looking at him and by talking with him, you’d think he was in Grade 12 already,” Letham adds. “It’s pretty impressive.”
So, too is the fact that at age 15, he is so smitten by the game that, without any pre-warning, he can deliver, on request, a scouting report on one of the nation’s premier, blue-chip university players.
“If you’ve watched Diego Maffia, break down his game,” says his inquisitor.
Says Ritzand of the former Oak Bay and current Victoria Vikes superstar: “I’ve only seen him live once or twice. He’s a great player. He can get his shot any way he wants and for being only 6-1, he can get to the rack and gets his teammates going. A really, really good shooter. He’s a tough guy to guard because he can handle the ball with both hands. He can do anything with both hands. I have seen his insane passes. He might take some questionable shots some times but he can really hit ‘em so… if you can hit ‘em, ain’t nobody going to say nothing about it.”
And in what seems to be a new gold era for Vancouver Island basketball, what with the Victoria Vikes’ table-setting ways in the Canada West, Vancouver Island University’s continued dynastic dominance in the PacWest, and the incredible play this season of high school teams across the tiers from Oak Bay, Spectrum, Dover Bay and Lambrick Park, Ritzand tips his hat to his peers when asked who it is that he most admires on his home rock.
“I like Justin Hinrichsen from Spectrum,” he says of the Grade 11 star guard. “I think he plays hard, a very good shooter, he goes after it, and he has expanded his game, too since I saw him last season. And every time I see him he’s a super-nice guy.
“I would also go with Frank Linder from Dover Bay and Toren Franklin from Oak Bay,” he says of the Grade 11 guards with the Bays’ and Dolphins respectively.
“Toren is a great shooter, a very good ball handler, and Frank I have known since I was very young and I have played club basketball since Grades 5-6-7 with him. He’s improving too, getting taller and getting his game together. Those three really stand out to me.”
Still a year behind each member of that trio of Vancouver Island standouts, Ritzand would love the chance to once again rub shoulders with all three when all tiers converge March 6-9 at the Langley Events Centre for the provincial championships. Yet he also knows his own team has a lot more to accomplish before any of that becomes a reality.
“The biggest goal is to get to the provincials again like last year,” says Ritzand, who admits to another one he hopes is part-and-parcel of the process of Wellington peaking at the perfect time.
“I know it’s not the easiest path, but I would really love to get to the semifinals and play in the Arena Bowl,” he adds of where the Final Four will gather, stressing all along that he is not putting the cart before the horse.
Last season, that secondary dream was dashed on opening day of the 3A provincials, in the No. 5-No. 12 matchup, when his team fell in the opening-round 60-52 to Vancouver’s favoured Lord Byng Grey Ghosts.
Nothing comes with a guarantee, yet if 15-year-old Grayson Ritzand continues to summon his basketball superpowers, the journey promises to be an entertaining one.
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at email@example.com.