Ferndale University High School forward/center Jason Penn signs his Letter of Intent to play for the Wolverines. (Photo courtesy of John Mackson/UM-Dearborn men's basketball).
Ferndale University High School forward/center Jason Penn signs his Letter of Intent to play for the Wolverines. (Photo courtesy of John Mackson/UM-Dearborn men's basketball).
Ferndale University High School forward/center Jason Penn signs his Letter of Intent to play for the Wolverines. (Photo courtesy of John Mackson/UM-Dearborn men’s basketball).

By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor

R Lindsay headshotJust over five years ago, the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s basketball team faced Siena Heights with undesirable history looming.

Entering the last game of the 2009-2010 regular season, the team, then known as the Wolves, were an abysmal 0-28. A three-point win over Siena Heights at home staved off imperfection, but team reached the lowest of lows in a relatively obsolete athletics program. Four days later, UM-Dearborn’s season would end; a 12-point loss to Cornerstone in the WHAC quarterfinals sealed a 1-29 season filled with forfeits, embarrassments, and close losses.

Fast forward to 2014, where the anguish from five years ago has become nothing but the past. The rebuilding process under head coach John Mackson, one that seemed to be accompanied with no light at the end of the tunnel, is inching closer to its completion. The results haven’t generated wins that top programs experience, but a lack of talent is no longer the case.

Several freshmen — guards Brandon Cole, Gage Throgmorton, and Marcus Tillmon-Cornet and forward Nick Wallace — played significant roles for the Wolverines this season. On March 25, UM-Dearborn added another impact player to the mix when Ferndale University High School star Jason Penn signed his Letter of Intent to join the team in the fall.

The 6-foot-7 power forward/center was named to the Associated Press Class B All-State team four days before signing with the Wolverines. He joins Southgate’s Connor Phee as the Wolverines’ other signee, giving the team depth and balance across the board next season.

“I think that he (Penn) comes in and adds depth to an already young core of players who were also very sought after,” Mackson said. “Gage, Nick, and Nathanael [Packwood] all had similar All-State selections a year ago. Jason has a college ready physique and is not afraid of physical play. I think he gives us a legitimate shot blocking presence which will allow us to take more chances on defense.”

Despite Penn’s height, Mackson said he hasn’t focused on adding tall players, rather searching for those who give the Wolverines numerous advantages over opponents and the ability to create mismatches.

“I wouldn’t say we are putting an emphasis on height. I would say we are trying to have more players that give us an advantage,” Mackson said. “Jason is a very long 6’7”. He gives us somebody to protect the rim and he is extremely agile and smart. He is raw as far as basketball players go because he has never participated in AAU.

“He has great timing as a shot blocker and gives us the ability to get out and pressure knowing he is there to challenge shots at the rim. I think he may be the best interior athlete on our team from day one.”

Praising Penn’s upside, Mackson said his signing carries out a coordinated plan to add length to the Wolverines.

“We have made a concerted effort to feature a line-up with a lot of length,” Mackson said. “We needed to get better at defending the three point arc. I think we have done that. Jason has the potential to be a 10 rebound guy, which we have not had in my time here.”

But Penn brings more than rebounding and glass presence to the Wolverines. The high school senior was a prolific scorer for Ferndale University, averaging 22.4 points per game this season, according to MaxPreps.

If Mackson is right, Penn has the opportunity to do what several freshmen did this season: start for the Wolverines out of high school. With the departure of Jeff Fick to graduation, the incoming freshman could slide right in at power forward or center to team up with junior big-man Balazs Juhasz.

For UM-Dearborn to get a commitment such as Penn’s, it shows that the light is indeed at the end of the tunnel. And each year under Mackson, the Wolverines continue to get closer to that light.

He just completed his third season at the helm, experiencing an increase in wins with each year passed. Although the Wolverines won only one more game this season than in the 2012-2013 campaign, progress was made. The team won their first back-to-back WHAC wins since joining the conference back in 2004.

Dustin Sielski was a senior in high school at the time of UM-Dearborn’s one win season. At any time, he could’ve revoked his commitment to the team while playing for Ida High School. But Sielski remained loyal, sticking through a rebuilding process to become the face of the program four years later, both figuratively and literally, through marketing campaigns of athletics.

Sielski experienced the many lows and highs that came with playing for UM-Dearborn during that span. He won’t, however, experience the Wolverines’ inevitable rise under Mackson.

With Letters of Intent from Jason Penn, Brandon Cole, Gage Throgmorton, Nathanael Packwood, and Nick Wallace over the past two years, future UM-Dearborn signees soon won’t have to endure what Sielski and many others had to go through in their careers.