KENSINGTON – At first glance, the Newport Tigers look like any other good high school basketball team. Two of the starters are 6 feet 8 inches tall and the guards dribble like junior Allen Iversons. But these kids still bounce the ball off their knees when they get too excited and throw passes into the stands every third possession.
The Tigers are ranked No. 3 in the state by the Associated Press. Watching them, you would never know their talent puts them at the center of a growing controversy over the competition for gifted players in the Baltimore- Washington area. A desire to gain the recognition that goes with winning is making private high school basketball in those cities increasingly similar to Division I college basketball, observers say.
Four years ago, Newport was just another private school in Kensington with an unremarkable basketball team. But then a hot, young coach named Chris Chaney entered with orders to build a top basketball program, and Newport became an instant powerhouse. Similar transformations have occurred in the last three years at Archbishop Spalding in Anne Arundel County, Montrose Christian in Rockville and Notre Dame Academy in Virginia.
To be fair, no one has accused these rags-to-riches programs of violating rules or failing to graduate players. And coaches like Chaney and Tony Martin at Spalding say they are doing exactly what they were hired to do.
Part of the problem is that rules on recruiting vary throughout the area. High schools cannot offer athletic scholarships. But independent schools like Newport can accept players from anywhere in or out of the country and are not prohibited from courting players at other high schools. Catholic league teams in both Washington and Baltimore can recruit eighth-graders but cannot solicit recruits from other high schools. Public schools are not supposed to recruit players outside of their districts.
Some schools have been down the road to basketball glory and come back. Richard Fairley, a first-year principal of St. John’s Prospect Hall in Frederick watched his school’s basketball team finish at the top of last year’s USA Today national poll. Under the guidance of coach Stu Vetter, Prospect Hall routinely brought in elite players from other states, often to play only a year or two. Many of the players lived with Vetter or his assistant coaches, Fairley says, and the coach had power as a legal guardian to write notes excusing players from school.
The school initially hoped to increase enrollment by hiring a high-profile program builder like Vetter, Fairley says. But after five years, school leaders realized that local students had no chance of making Vetter’s elite team and that local competitors would no longer play Prospect Hall because of the coach’s methods. They also realized Vetter, who did not even graduate from college, was the second highest paid person on staff.
The school offered Vetter a chance to change his program to meet standards enforced by the Baltimore Catholic league, Fairley says, but he resigned instead.
Now, Prospect Hall’s team features kids from Frederick and a coach who teaches academic classes. The school has gone from a 25-0 record last year to 9-19 this year, but Fairley, himself a former coach at Sidwell Friends in Washington, says he is happier.
“We’re not really concerned with where this takes us in terms of rankings or anything like that,” he says. “We’re more concerned with the process.”
Programs like Vetter’s at Prospect Hall are sad, says Pete Strickland, head coach at Coastal Carolina University, a Division I school in South Carolina, and a former player and coach at DeMatha in Hyattsville.
“Part of what makes high school basketball great is that you’re in a league and you’re playing for a league championship against kids who are from where you’re from,” he says. “At schools like that, there’s no interest pulling them from game to game. They’re competing for some mythical national championship, but there’s no cohesion, no context.”
Strickland says he and other disapproving college coaches face a dilemma when they want to recruit a player from a basketball magnet school. But he says he often pursues such players anyway.
“When I criticize this system, I say it pointing a damning finger at myself,” he says.
The system is not healthy, Fairley says. He traces the trend back to the NCAA’s decision to limit the visits college coaches can make to prospects. The decision began to have an effect in the 1980s, creating a wave of summer camps and tournaments designed to showcase concentrated groups of talented players to interested coaches.
Many of the coaches and organizers of these summer programs are only interested in attaching themselves to rising stars, Fairley says. “Now it’s become a quick fix-it situation where schools can go out and buy a top program whenever they want to. All they have to do is hire one of these guys who has accumulated a talented stable of players.”
Others say the system is not bad for kids or schools. Joe McCall, head coach at Good Counsel, a Catholic league power, says he does not enjoy recruiting, but he says he has to go after local stars to remain competitive in a league that includes tradition-rich programs like DeMatha and Gonzaga.
“There’s this misnomer that there’s something wrong with private schools recruiting talented kids,” he says. “But how else do private schools stay in business? As long as the basketball program doesn’t become the total focus, I don’t see what’s wrong with it.”
Washington’s Catholic league manages to avoid most of the criticism that newer programs like Newport have to face, but some say the reputations of coaches like DeMatha’s Morgan Wooten and Gonzaga’s Dick Myers obscure the fiercest recruiting competition in the area. Fairley, for example, says friends of his who have coached in the Catholic league and in college, have told him recruiting is heavier in the Catholic league than at a majority of Division I schools.
Catholic league rules say coaches are not to make first contact with players from other high schools. That is the line that many coaches say should not be crossed.
Even Newport’s Chaney, who says he was hired specifically to build a nationally competitive program, says he does not believe in making first contact with players.
Newport’s starting five alone features players from Georgia, New Jersey and the country of Cameroon, and only one of the team’s key players attended the school last year. But Chaney says all of the transfers contacted him first. In fact, he says he receives a barrage of letters from players who want to transfer to Newport and accepts only a handful every year.
Chaney says his program is attractive to players because it forces them to balance school work and travel, the same challenge college athletes face as freshmen. Why, he asks, shouldn’t basketball prospects directly prepare themselves for college by attending a school like Newport for a year?
Public school leagues may be the last place to find purely local basketball, but public school coaches also have to accept the impact of increased competition. Dan Harwood, the head coach at Magruder, a top public school team in Montgomery County, says he likes his job, because it doesn’t require him to recruit. But he has no problem with coaches at top private schools showing interest in the talented players from his district.
Harwood was annoyed several years ago, when Prospect Hall recruited away three of his most promising players without even a courtesy call. And he doesn’t think athletes benefit from jumping to three schools in two years, as Magruder junior center Sebastian Hermenier did. But Harwood says he maintains good relationships with most area private schools and says he is content to work with the youth who come to him. “The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the fence,” he says. “I know I wouldn’t want the responsibility of making promises to high school kids about playing time or whatever. I’m glad that’s not my job.” -30-