Apr 21, 2014
Top Players to watch
Class of 2012
Mitch McGary, Brewster
T.J. Warren, Brewster
Kaleb Tarczewski, St. Mark’s School (Mass.) from Claremont
Kaley Marston, Tilton
Daisy Jordan, Tilton
Madeline Blais, New Hampton
Lizzy Ball, New Hampton
Class of 2013
Nerlens Noel, Tilton
Goodluck Okonoboh, Tilton
Class of 2014
Wayne Selden, Tilton
Noah Vonleh, New Hampton
Top locals to watch
Richard O’Brien, Brewster, from Bedford
Mike Auger, Tilton, from Hopkinton
Alex Cohen, Tilton, from Nashua
Savanna Butterfield, Tilton, from Londonderry
Samantha Hillis, Brewster, from Alton
Megan Hardiman, Brewster, from Loudon
Brianna Neely, Brewster, from New Durham
Sam Brenner, New Hampton, from Nashua
Shayla Hubbard, New Hampton, from Laconia
Katherine McMahon, New Hampton, from New Hampton
See them play
Seasons run through early March. Here are a few upcoming games:
New Hampton vs. Vanier Prep on Wednesday, Jan. 4, at 4 p.m. at New Hampton School
Brewster vs. New Hampton School on Friday, Jan. 6, at 6 p.m. at Brewster Academy
Tilton vs. Proctor Academy on Friday, Jan. 6, at 4:30 p.m. at Tilton School
Titon vs. Cushing Academy on Saturday, Jan. 7, at 4:30 p.m. at Tilton School
New Hampton vs. St. Thomas More on Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 5 p.m. at New Hampton School
Brewster vs. Maine Central Institute on Friday, Jan. 13, at 6 p.m. at Brewster Academy
Basketball, like jazz, is a distinctly American invention. Sprung from the mind of Dr. James Naismith in 1891, the game is now exported around the world. Yet along the way certain places have come to symbolize basketball’s evolution: Springfield, Mass., New York City’s Rucker Park, Hickory, Indiana, Chicago’s South Side, the University of Michigan circa 1991, and, of course, New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.
This last entry is not a typo. Each year, scores of the nation’s most talented and highly regarded high school basketball players enroll to study amid the rolling hills and stone buildings of New Hampshire’s famous prep schools. More specifically, three schools — Brewster Academy, Tilton School and New Hampton School — have become the epicenter of high school basketball in America.
This is not hyperbole. In its 2011-2012 Five Star Basketball preseason Top 25, Sports Illustrated magazine ranked Wolfeboro’s Brewster Academy number 1, Tilton School number 3 and New Hampton School number 8, beating out schools in Las Vegas, Chicago and Texas. When Tilton plays Brewster in January, the game will be televised on ESPN. Brewster’s Mitch McGary will play his college basketball next year at the University of Michigan. He is being called the school’s biggest recruit in a decade.
And yet no one seems to notice. At many games college recruiters outnumber fans. Part of this is by design. The other part is due to a confluence of circumstances that makes the situation possible while simultaneously ensuring it is never popular.
In the beginning...
These schools play in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC), which “consists of four District organizations, each of which operates with some autonomy in guiding the development of policies and procedures related to athletic competition within the District,” according to the league’s website, nepsac.org. Last year, according to Jason Smith, head coach at Brewster, 80 kids in the NEPSAC signed with Division I college basketball programs, which is the highest level of college basketball.
“The NEPSAC is the most competitive prep school league in the country,” said Jeremy Leveille, who covers New Hampshire high school sports for NH Notebook, nhnotebook.com. “If you can play in the NEPSAC, you can play anywhere.
“Kids come from all over the country,” Leveille continued. “In fact, most of the talent is from outside of New Hampshire.”
The roster of New Hampton’s basketball team includes players from California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Delaware, Utah, Virginia and Canada and Mike Auger, the lone representative of the Granite State.
“They’re essentially all-star teams,” Leveille said.
Most men’s programs at these schools have a Varsity A team and a Varsity B team (sometimes called JVA), according to Tyler York, who previously worked as an athletic trainer at New Hampton School. The Varsity A team consists of high-level recruits, while the Varsity B team is more like your traditional high school basketball team. This ensures every kid, even ones who aren’t college basketball prospects, a chance to play high school hoops. Varsity B teams have always existed. What is a relatively new phenomenon is the explosion of talent on these Varsity A squads.
No one seems to know exactly how this all got started, but Leo Papile has a theory. As the head coach of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) since the late 1970s, Papile is an almost mythical figure within high school basketball. He’s coached such NBA stars as Patrick Ewing, won numerous AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) national championships and was once employed by the Boston Celtics.
“We sort of pioneered the whole thing in 1983 when we sent Eugene Miles, a great player from Dorchester, up to New Hampton,” Papile said. Miles went on to star at Cleveland State University.
A player like Miles was typical of the early years of the prep school migration. A talented player would spend his career at his local high school and then go off to a prep school for a post-graduate year. Most times this was because the player needed additional academic help.
When handing out a scholarship for more than $40,000 a year, colleges want to make sure the kid they are recruiting will succeed. While that obviously means success on the court, it also means making grades in the classroom. Prep schools, because of their smaller classes (most prep schools have total enrollments around 200 to 300 kids) and ability to give one-on-one attention, have long been places of redemption for academic underachievers, according to Jason Hickman, national basketball writer and editor for Maxpreps.com, an affiliate of CBSSports.com that covers high school sports.
“It is a tremendous avenue for kids,” Hickman said. “They can get away from home and hone their skills in the classroom and on the court.”
In fact, one of the reasons these schools don’t do more self-promotion in terms of their basketball teams is that they already have outstanding reputations as academic institutions and they don’t want to over-shadow that, according to Will McCulloch, director of communications at New Hampton School.
But over time word got out that these youngsters were thriving both academically and athletically. Suddenly everyone, not just kids who needed help in the classroom, wanted to be part of the action. A talent surplus was born.
Why they come
A player like Mitch McGary is going to be noticed no matter where he plays. But for every McGary, there are six or seven borderline Division I prospects. These are the ones who benefit most from the prep school experience.
One of the major enticements of playing for a prep school (including other New Hampshire prep schools such as Kimball Union Academy, Phillips Exeter Academy or Proctor Academy) is that a player is able to reclassify, according to Leveille. This means someone who plays his freshman and sophomore years at a public high school and then transfers to a prep school can repeat his sophomore year. While conventional wisdom says kids don’t want to repeat a grade, the opposite is true in basketball.
“It happens all the time where a kid repeats the year he just did or does a post-graduate year,” Leveille said. “This allows you to compete against kids a year younger than you but also lets you mature physically. It also gives colleges an extra year to recruit you.”
To get a coveted college scholarship, a player has to be seen. And visibility is much greater at these prep schools. Leveille said at a championship New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) game there may be recruiters from schools like Colby-Sawyer, Plymouth State and Daniel Webster College, teams that play a Division III schedule. While Leveille said Division III basketball is nothing to sneeze at, there are simply more recruiters at NEPSAC games.
College recruiters are attracted to players from these programs because those schools mimic the college experience.
“They’ve already been away from home and been in a structured environment with everything from study halls to mandatory weightlifting programs,” Smith said.
For college recruiters, like Xavier University assistant coach Travis Steele, prep schools are fertile ground for players who can make the transition to the next level. Two players from Brewster Academy, Semaj Christon and Jalen Reynolds, will be joining Steele and head coach Chris Mack at Xavier next year.
“For all of these guys the transition will be easier because they’re essentially playing against Division I talent every day,” Steele said. “At a traditional high school, a guy might be 6’9” but the next tallest guys he’s going up against is 6’2”. At these schools you’re practicing against equal talent every day and definitely getting that competition in games.”
Case in point: there are six players on New Hampton’s team who are 6’7” or taller. In the past, there may have been an incredibly talented basketball player in a small Ohioan town. Unfortunately, he might go all season and compete against one player as talented as him. Yet when Tilton plays Brewster all of the players have Division I talent.
“This raises the level of these players,” Leveille said.
That competition is intense and not everyone can handle the pressure. Hickman said even that is functional.
“It is part of the natural weeding out process,” Hickman said. “Some kids rest on their laurels. Others are good but not great. Not everyone is meant to be a star.”
Steele said the constant challenge against such talent is an instant reality check for players. Everyone at the Division I college level has talent. Talent isn’t enough. Hard work both on and off the court is needed for success and Steele said prep schools prepare kids for that.
Steele also said he is looking for kids who are willing to work and aren’t afraid of a challenge. He said competing against the best at a prep school shows him a kid isn’t afraid.
Why it works
At major universities basketball games draw sold-out crowds in the tens of thousands and are major money-makers. But prep schools’ tiny gyms allow for maybe a few hundred fans and the games are free anyway. How then does a prep school benefit from having an exceptional basketball program?
“At Tilton we like to excel at everything we do,” said Tilton’s head coach Marcus O’Neil.
O’Neil said every program, whether it’s the science department or choir, strives for excellence. The basketball team is no different. This desire to excel attracts players to the school. They are able to stay because of the community nature of prep schools and the fact that sports teams aren’t isolated from the rest of the school — students and athletes blend. In fact, it is often mandatory for a student to play a team sport, which bridges the gap as everyone, regardless of talent level, is a student-athlete. Kids who may have only played basketball at their former schools find themselves exposed to new opportunities, according to Tara Brisson, head coach of Tilton’s women’s basketball team. Some may play guitar while the star football player is also in the school play.
“We have such a diverse student body that nothing is quote-unquote uncool,” Brisson said. “The kids can be who they want to be.”
The transition is made easier because at prep schools everyone, not just athletes, is typically coming from somewhere else. Sure, it might be difficult for an inner-city kid to adapt to life in Tilton. But that adaption is no more difficult than the adjustment of one of the Chinese or Korean students who is also learning a new language, according to O’Neil.
This melting pot of national and international students is one of the reasons basketball players are able to fit in so easily. It is also the reason there are few fans at the games. At a local high school, people come to cheer the kids they’ve known for years. At these schools, most of the players are from elsewhere, so local residents do not know them.
Technology has helped basketball players know more about these schools. Smith said Facebook and other social media have played a major role in making rural areas like Wolfeboro and New Hampton less remote.
Another benefit for the players at a prep school is that they live on campus and so they have access to basketball courts, weight training and healthy dining all the time. At New Hampton, for example, players can be found in the gym during the spring and fall, as well as doing individual workouts and strength and conditioning. In the winter, as at most high schools, they typically practice two hours a day.
In any school that has a national spotlight on its sports stars, there is the potential for resentment from the other students who may say that so-and-so could never have gotten into the school if he didn’t play basketball. While this may be true in some places, Peter Hutchins, head coach at New Hampton, said there is nothing of the kind at New Hampton.
“Maybe if they were treated differently this might happen,” Hutchins said. “But everyone at New Hampton is held to the same standards. There are no special privileges.”
Hutchins was validated by York, who also a taught a class on sustainability at the school.
“One hundred percent athletes are treated like students,” York said. “These schools pride themselves on education.”
Yet most students who come are repeating a school year. While reclassifying helps the player on the court, does it stunt his learning? Repeating a year might be beneficial as far as muscle growth and dribbling skills, but what does it do as far as intellectual stimulation? The answer, according to Hutchins, is a lot. To begin with, he said, schools like New Hampton offer such a diversity of courses that although a student may be repeating a grade, he wouldn’t be repeating a class. Students can also partake in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, which is a two-year program meant to prepare students for an interconnected, globalized world.
This combination must be working, as New Hampton currently has three graduates playing in the Ivy League, according to McCulloch, the school’s director of communication. Pat Saunders of Gilford is a senior at Princeton, Mike Howlett is at Penn, and Jon Daniels at Columbia.
The women’s game
While there is great emphasis on the men’s game, more and more women are being recruited by and leaving for prep schools. Third-year coach Tara Brisson is working hard to establish a program at Tilton School. She is currently drawing talent from a more localized pool, as several players are from New Hampshire and many more are from Massachusetts. Her style is paying off. In her first season, the team won 19 games, and most recently they made the finals of the NEPAC Class 3 tournament. This year’s team will have five players playing basketball in college, three on scholarships, including captain Kaley Marston of Bow, who will play at Brandeis University next year.
“Coming here was the best decision of my life,” said Marston, who left Bow High School after her freshman year for Bishop Brady High School before landing in Tilton. “The environment is awesome. And at prep school, sports aren’t as political. You play because you’re good. Not because your dad’s the coach.”
Marston speaks with maturity. She understands basketball is a means to an end but it is also one she loves. She doesn’t feel like she’s sacrificed anything during her tour from school to school — instead she’s gained the world. She said she has been able to stay in contact with her childhood friends while forging special bonds with her Tilton teammates.
It is a bond shared by Brisson, who said she acts as a parent for the kids who are away from home. For her part, Brisson wanted to be a head coach, which is why she turned down a lucrative offer to be the first assistant at the University of Maine and instead took the helm at Tilton. She said high school students are like sponges, absorbing her teaching on basketball and on how to be a good person. She is not alone in this feeling.
“I like the round-the-clock responsibility,” O’Neil said. “I’m more than just a basketball coach.”
Being more than a coach helps alleviate some of the pressure felt by college coaches whose careers and livelihoods are defined by wins and losses. Even though O’Neil knows Brewster and New Hampton are going to be competitive each year he doesn’t feel like he has to be champion to keep his job. In fact, he wants those schools to be great. He said everyone who coaches in the New England Class 3 has a certain level of competitiveness. He said it wouldn’t be fun to roll over opponents.
How they get there
Yet teams still want to win. To do that they must recruit the best players. Success breeds future success. Coach Smith said this season he received more than 500 inquiries from players interested in playing ball at Brewster. Coaches like Smith are in advantageous position. They have the best of the best knocking on their door. But Smith said he recruits people who will succeed at Brewster, not just the best basketball players. He said he recruits character first and foremost. He said each incoming player must present three recommendations from teachers. He is looking for motivation and citizenship.
“There is no magic wand,” Smith said. “To succeed a kid needs academics, character and maturity.”
While character is important, size is still king and is the first thing you notice when you walk into the gym, according to Hickman. From there it gets tougher and what coaches want and need varies.
O’Neil said recruiting happens on a multi-tiered track. He said inquiries come from students and coaches and that he actively recruits. O’Neil said his focus is more regionally based. He is active in the hotbed of Boston hoops. Several of O’Neil’s players also play for Papile’s team in Boston during the summer.
“There’s some regional pride there,” O’Neil said.
While schools like New Hampton, Tilton and Brewster have national reputations, which talented players they score still has a lot to do with word of mouth. Much of this comes from former players who move on to big-time college programs and spread the gospel of their former prep school. Thus was the case with Brady Morningstar. Morningstar came from Lawrence, Kan., to New Hampton during the 2005-2006 season. Morningstar went on to win a national championship as a member of the University of Kansas Jayhawks. One of the assistant coaches of the Jayhawks is Danny Manning, a former NBA all-star and one of the single greatest college basketball players of all time. Manning’s son, Evan, is now playing at New Hampton.
While post-graduate players are nice, Hutchins is making an effort to recruit younger players so that he can have more time to mold them both on and off the court. The added years also give continuity to the program, reducing the need to re-teach the offense and defense each year to an endless carousel of talented post-grads. This means, however, that the players Hutchins is recruiting are incredibly young, yet he said it wasn’t difficult to identify talent even in these youngest of youngsters. The challenge arises, according to Hutchins, when they play a team filled with post-graduates who are stronger both physically and emotionally.
This youthful migration doesn’t seem to be a fad, either. Of the top 100 high school players in the country, Smith said 45 percent go to prep schools or independent day schools.
Since these teams are essentially all-star teams, does the issue of playing time ever come up? The ninth man on New Hampton’s team could probably start for every NHIAA team, so does that player ever complain about minutes? Hutchins said he neutralizes this by being as honest as possible during recruiting.
“I’m honest with the kids,” Hutchins said. “I tell them playing time is earned through hard work.”
Prep school coaches are not easily impressed by national accolades. They are not apt to indulge the egos of these blossoming stars.
“The first few months is about humbling them,” Smith said. “I remind them they’re probably not as good as they think they are.
“I get a lot of calls from kids saying they’re the 12th-ranked eighth-grader in the country,” Smith continued. “I tell them that plus 75 cents will buy you a cup of coffee.”
The reason is that no matter how talented these players are, there is still a long way from that initial talent to later success. There are innumerable hurdles on the journey to becoming a professional basketball player. In fact, even at Brewster the idea is still more a dream than a guarantee. Smith, who is in his 12th year with the program, said during the first seven years he had 60 to 65 kids go off to Division I schools. Yet only two have made the NBA and they were end-of-the-bench players.
With still such a small chance of making it to the big time, is all the effort — leaving behind your family, playing basketball 24/7 — worth it? Has basketball become a career for some of these kids?
Gone are the days of kids’ playing a different sport each season. More and more specialize in one sport at a young age, hoping to wring every ounce of benefit out of the sport. This isn’t exclusive to basketball. Many prep schools have formidable hockey and football programs as well. Yet Brewster’s Smith still encourages kids to play multiple sports, because the different movements train different muscles. And Papile said when he was growing up, in a previous era, he still played basketball every day.
More important than just the players’ focus on basketball is the culture’s focus on the players. Basketball is a multi-billion-dollar industry. In the 10 years he has covered high school sports for Maxpreps.com, Hickman said, media attention and awareness has exploded tenfold.
Shoe companies, like Nike and Adidas, spend big money to make sure the best players wear their logos. There are countless websites like Hickman’s own Maxpreps.com, as well as espn.com, rivals.com, New England Basketball Recruiting Report, etc., that focus entirely on high school athletes. Leveille said he has heard of sites that analyze middle schoolers. He’s heard of a seventh-grader reclassifying and that one former prep school star had reclassified so many times he was a 20-year-old playing against 15-year-olds.
There is also the question of whether these kids are becoming better basketball players. It is undeniable they are better athletes. But basketball is a game of skills honed through constant practice. Today’s players play more than 20 games with their high school teams, then an additional 60 games or so with their AAU or club teams. Tilton will play in tournaments in Illinois, Florida, West Virginia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. All of those games and all of that travel leaves less time for shooting jumpers.
“It’s a hot topic out there,” Hickman said, “that by traveling and playing so many games instead of practicing kids are losing the fundamentals. There’s a lot of smart people looking into this.”
Yet with all of the travel and the constant practice, the kids who are on the team, regardless of where their home town is, are able to form a strong and lasting bond, a bond many wouldn’t trade for the world, according to Leveille.
And while it may be controversial for young basketball prospects to be shipped away from home to work on their craft, it is not uncommon throughout the rest of the world. In fact, in this respect America is playing catch up, according to Hickman. It is common in Europe for a 14- or 15-year-old tennis, golf or soccer prodigy to enter an academy where school is secondary to sport. At least our prep schools are, as described by Papile, “legitimate academic institutions.”
For many all of these life changes are worth it. With the cost of tuition (out-of-state tuition for McGary’s University of Michigan is $37,265, according to U.S. News and World Report), rising in no correlation with people’s incomes, why wouldn’t a student and his or her parents do whatever possible to get a college scholarship?
That being said, prep schools aren’t cheap either. In fact, according to boardingschoolreview.com, the average yearly tuition at a boarding school is $42,500. Now most students, and especially most players recruited for basketball, aren’t paying that fee. Smith said Brewster gives no athletic or merit-based scholarships. However, it does offer financial aid on a need basis, which he said was standard amongst New Hampshire prep schools.
“No one on our team gets 100 percent financial aid,” Smith said. “Everyone is making some commitment to be here.”
Brisson said basketball often appeals to poorer kids because it has low overhead.
“All you need is a ball and a pair of sneakers,” Brisson said, as opposed to the limitless gear in football, hockey and baseball.
As a result, more of these kids may need financial aid. But for many kids who may be at risk, leaving a negative home situation behind for the idyllic life of prep school can literally be a life-saver, according to Papile. He said matching a kid to a school has little to do with basketball. It is finding an academic and financial fit. He said some families are ready to write a check for $40,000 while others can only do $400.
Not for everyone
Of course prep school isn’t for everyone. Merrimack High School’s Dimitri Floras was a first team all-state player as a sophomore, according to nhnotebook.com. Perhaps for many of the reasons previously mentioned, Floras transferred to Kimball Union Academy in Plainfield. After only a few months there, he returned to Merrimack.
“There are a lot of reasons a player might not like prep school,” Leveille said. “Many are in the boonies of New Hampshire and western Mass. The kid might not like living away from home so young. He might not like the coach. Or maybe he was a star at his local high school and now isn’t getting any playing time.”
Tilton’s Brisson said she has had kids come who love Tilton but aren’t ready to make the needed commitment to basketball. In these cases, the girls may play JV basketball, which is less intense, instead. But she said since women’s basketball is on the rise, more want to come and to play.
If all of these players are going to prep schools it means they are leaving somewhere else. As a result public leagues, like the NHIAA, are suffering. Especially since this trend is for younger and younger players. For years, according to Leveille, kids played their four years at their public high school and then went to a prep school for a post-graduate year. Now they’re leaving earlier.
There was a time in New Hampshire when the top talent played for their hometown school. Some, like Concord’s Matt Bonner, went onto play Division I basketball and even found their way to the NBA. But now stars like Kaleb Tarczewski of Claremont are moving on to prep schools. Tarczewski plays at St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts.
As he’s traveled the country for Maxpreps.com, Hickman has talked with public high schools about this trend. He said some were bitter about losing their top talents. But he said the ones with the best interest of the kids at heart are open to the way things are going because it can really put the kid in the right situation. The reason: it works.
Many of these players attend prep school to get a chance at a Division I scholarship. But when the time comes, and they are lucky enough to have several options, their coach must play a critical role in helping them make their decision. But for O’Neil there is no more pressure in these decisions than with any other student at Tilton who is participating in the competitive admissions process. At prep schools, coaches have other jobs as well. O’Neil, who holds a master’s degree in social work, is the associate director of college counseling. In this position he gets pressure from all types of parents who want their kids to get into the best school possible.
O’Neil said he works with the families on this big decision and often reminds them that the best fit — the school the student will be happiest at — isn’t always the most prestigious.
These prep schools just happen to be prestigious. But when the whistle blows and the game is on, none of that matters. In New Hampton’s recent victory over the Winchendon School there was a burst of brilliant basketball in the second half that altered the outcome of the game. The run was spearheaded by sophomore guard Jared Terrell.
When Terrell hit a pivotal three-pointer he turned to the crowd, made up almost entirely of his classmates, and flashed a grin from ear to ear. In that instant it didn’t matter what his hometown was or what his ranking was on espn.com or what colleges were recruiting him. In that moment, he was just a kid doing what he loves.
|®2014 Hippo Press.