Clear Lake coach Tommy Penders Jr. was raised in a college basketball dormitory on the campus of Tufts University in Massachusetts.
That’s how far his hoop roots go back. His father, Tommy Penders. was an up-and-coming college coach in the northeast, leading the Tufts Jumbo basketball program at the time. The fast-riser then had stops at Columbia, Fordham, Rhode Island, the University of Texas, George Washington and the University of Houston.
Needless to say, Tommy Penders Jr. was a gym rat learning the game at a very high level at a very young age.
“I’ve seen it all – the good and the bad,” he said. “I’ve seen kids who were can’t-miss pros fail terribly and what I thought were average players become All-Americans. I lived in a family where our lives were dependent on winning and losing, and learned at an early age about the importance of being an active member of a community as a coach.”
He has done just that at Clear Lake, where he has been the coach for six seasons.
The Falcons were seconds away from winning the Class 6A state championship in March as an underdog to the mighty Plano West, who had several Division I athletes on the roster including D.J. Hogg (Texas A&M), Tyler Davis (Texas A&M) and Mickey Mitchell (Ohio State).
“That’s the best high school team I’ve ever faced,” he said. “But our personnel was the perfect matchup for Plano West. We had a team that didn’t care who got the credit and would have to 100 percent share the ball. They did just that and we were in it to the end.”
“Our guys had played against several Plano West players in the summer so they felt like they were peers and weren’t intimidated. We went into the game confident.”
As (bad) luck would have it, Hogg would hit a buzzer-beater to knock off Clear Lake 56-54 in front of a partisan Falcon crowd.
“I can say no one saw this coming early in the season,” said Jim Hicks, a basketball analyst and RCS Sports president said. “They weren’t preseason ranked, they didn’t have any star Division I athletes and they had been bounced early from the playoffs the past several years. We ignored the signs, but by the end of the season they were the best team, the best community support and were the most prepared.”
“They won the hearts of the Houston-area basketball community and had the crowd behind them at the state title game. Even though they lost, they have inspired a lot of teams around here to be more team-focused. They set the blue print.”
After playing for his father at the University of Texas, Penders got his first coaching job back at Rhode Island University. Then his dad hired him at George Washington where he coached several years. But Penders had a different calling.
“I’m at speech teacher in the classroom everyday and I love it,” he said. “You develop relationships with the student body in high school. In college, your relationship is only with the players.
“I love being part of a community where you are affecting kids for the rest of their lives. We are teaching them right from wrong and it’s just very rewarding.”
He has a pair of assistants who have the same path and passion. Marc Gernander’s father was a Hall of Fame Junior College coach, while Matt Frye played for his father who coached at the college level.
“I’m pretty positive as a coach, but Gernander is a pessimist when evaluating our team,” he laughs. “We balance each other out pretty well. When we were scrimmaging in the preseason he pulled me aside and said, ‘I hate to say this, but we are going to be pretty special this year.’ At that point I knew we were going to have a great ride.”
The difference for Penders and Clear Lake was that his bus was led by a trio of seniors, not sophomores.
Guards Bradley George, Christian West and Orion Lewis averaged double-figures and were interchangeable. Chris Stenerson and Alex Westby were also huge factors on the Falcons’ success.
“Getting to state is something our seniors have been talking about for two years,” he said. “They were on a mission and weren’t going to be stopped. In the past we had a tendency to let games slip away in the playoffs. They weren’t going to let that happen. They were amazing.”
“Even after the game, we weren’t bitter about losing, but just sad that we would never play together again. I’ve had close teams, but this was a different group and now it’s over.
“On the bright side, we made memories for the school, our players and coaches that can never be taken away from us,” he said. “I’m so proud of what we accomplished and we can talk about this for the rest of our lives.”