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Fenn feeding competitive fire coaching basketball at Nichols

Like any good scorer, Darren Fenn knows when opportunity is too good to pass up.

It’s the reason the 36-year-old is no longer playing professional basketball even though he is still physically capable of battling for rebounds and slamming home a putback in exchange for a paycheck.

It’s also the reason the former Canisius High School and Canisius College standout is beyond happy.

Fenn is fulfilling another dream, as he’s found a way to not only impact the development of future talents in the area but also do it while quenching his own competitive thirst.

Fenn is back in the scholastic spotlight again, as he’s the coach of Nichols, one of Western New York’s signature boys’ basketball programs. He succeeds John Reinholz, who stepped down after guiding the Vikings to Manhattan Cup playoff titles two of the past three seasons.

In addition to inheriting a perennial championship contender, the 6-foot-9 Fenn takes over a program that has produced at least two of the best players ever to out of this area in Christian Laettner and Will Regan.

Darren Fenn scored more than 1,400 points at Canisius College. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“The reputation or the history of Nichols basketball is robust,” said Fenn, the 1997 Buffalo News Player of the Year and an hall-of-famer at both Canisius schools. “I think there will be pressure on anyone who comes in here to continue the program and keep it going and to really build on that success.

“This is a very small school. There are only 200 boys who attend here compared to St. Joe’s or Canisius so I think the challenges are going to be to find and bring the most out of the talent. I think that’s what John was really, really good at and I think that’s the path I have to continue with and the direction the program has to go.”

Fenn finished with more than 1,400 points and 800 rebounds in four seasons with the Golden Griffins. After graduating in 2001 he embarked on a 14-year career as a professional overseas in six countries helping three teams win championships. A six-time all-star in Germany and all-star game MVP, he scored over 6,200 points and grabbed more than 3,100 rebounds in more than 520 games.

Fenn’s reason for retiring as a player ultimately created a path to Nichols.

He was set to return to the German team he won a championship with when a basketball court became available at South Towns Tennis Club in Orchard Park.  He said the facility wanted to branch out into more than just offering tennis.

Court availability allowed him to open up his own basketball school, Western New York Premier Basketball Training (http://darrenfenn.com/the-physical-game/), where he has trained more than 400 clients, ranging from age 6 to adult, the past 18 months.

He had already started planting home roots in the area as his wife and two daughters settled here late during his playing career. Mix in the fact that Fenn, a certified fitness trainer, had started dabbling in teaching on the side as a player. …

“I remember getting my hands on it, and sort of looked at my wife and said ‘I think I have to run with this thing and see what happens?’ She agreed and it was a great chance for me to stay home and be with my family,” Fenn said.

Among his clients: members of the Nichols basketball team who came in once a week. When Reinholz made the decision to step down, Fenn said he approached him about applying for the position.

While many coaches have often said they are teachers, there is a difference from merely teaching individuals the skills to use in certain scenarios in a game to running an entire team that’s trying to attain success.

“What I do for my regular work is just a small aspect of basketball,” Fenn said. “You’re teaching skills, you’re teaching fundamentals. … That’s a different thing, that’s a small sect of the game. … I really missed competing again. I was part of a team my whole life. I didn’t have that for a year and a half. To get the opportunity to coach and to be part of a team again and to have my hands around the whole game, the entirety of a game, has been really exciting for me.

“To have a game day again ... It’s been really exciting for the team too. We’re trying to build something here and we’ve had a really good response.”

Mike MacDonald, who coached Fenn in college, initially didn’t think he’d become a coach after his playing days. That notion changed once Fenn began working out during the offseason with MacDonald’s son Patrick, who currently plays at SUNY Maritime.

“What happened, he’d come back in the summer (during the offseason) … he wanted to keep in shape and wanted someone to work out,” said MacDonald, the head coach at Daemen College. “My son Patrick is a big kid who’s 6-8. I said, 'Darren, why don’t you work out with Pat?' The next thing you know he kind of took Pat under his wing.

“Pat’s game developed where he’s become a really good college basketball player. Darren deserves a lot of (credit) for that. … This is a great way for him to stay in it (game).”

That it is, although the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association has changed a bit since he graduated from Canisius High School in 1997.

For one, there’s no more Turner/Carroll powerhouse as Fenn’s alma mater has become the dominant program in the league. Nichols? The program wasn’t even a member of the private-school league during Fenn’s playing days.

The biggest change: All schools used to be grouped in one division. Now the league is divided into a Class A and B divisions. Nichols is in Class B for the second year in a row. Fenn hopes to guide the Vikings to their fourth straight Manhattan Cup final.

Remember, they began that run and won a Cup prior to the instillation of two divisions after the 2013-14 season.

A young Vikings team struggled most of last season but came of age during the playoffs. Nichols went from play-in game participant to state finalist during a 3-0 run through the Manhattan Cup playoffs.

Nichols is off to a 2-4 start – losing in overtime, 58-55, last Friday to Maryvale in the ADPRO Public/Private Schools Challenge – but that doesn’t change the fact that Fenn has some nice pieces back in the fold. That includes senior Will Johnson – an All-WNY honorable mention.

Johnson, one of the top shooters in the area and a strong defender, is coming off a season in which he averaged 16 points. Fenn is using center Myles Hervey as his defensive anchor but also wants him to be strong around the basket on offense and chip into the scoring. Point guard T.J. Banaszak is solid player as well.

Nichols plans to play some hard man-to-man defense while mixing in some zone. The goal is to make its opponents uncomfortable and limit second-chance scoring opportunities.

One more thing has changed since Fenn last played a game for his old high school. Canisius now plays its home games in the Bernard J. Kennedy Fieldhouse.

That’s wasn’t around during Fenn’s playing days, but he’s already checked out the new place. He does so once again Jan. 30 when the Vikings face the two-time defending state Catholic Class A champions.

He said he’s not thinking about that contest, though, as Nichols has several games before that – including a Dec. 29 clash against Bradford (Pa.) at the IAABO Tournament at St. Bonaventure.

He can only hope Canisius’ new home treats him as well as that old gym with the stage in the background.

“The character of that old court was something you couldn’t find anywhere else,” Fenn said. “I loved that court, it was good to me.”

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