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Tiny Prep School Molds Basketball Players

December 18, 2005

By Greg Lacour, The Charlotte Observer, N.C., The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Dec. 18–HAPPY VALLEY — One of the nation’s best prep basketball teams resides in a tiny, private school on a rural hillside several miles from the nearest stoplight — an institution that’s placing its future largely in the players’ hands.

The Patterson School is a cluster of six modest brick buildings, plus a decaying gym, a barn and a pond, that for 96 years has stood alone in a remote part of northern Caldwell County, about 60 miles northwest of Charlotte.

It’s always been a place for boarding students in middle and high schools, and the school in recent years has added a post-high school college preparatory curriculum.

This year, about 80 students — five times the enrollment from just five years ago — study under a faculty of 12. Some students pay close to $20,000 per year to learn and board. Patterson receives no state or federal money. It has only two funding sources, tuition and donations. Times are usually tight.

But the 18 basketball players are going places. Seven have committed to play next year for Division I-A programs, and the others have enough ability to play college ball somewhere. One, Davon Jefferson, is considered good enough to turn pro after this season.

None had ever set foot on Patterson’s campus until an ambitious new headmaster and a new coach teamed this summer to guide them there.

The coach is 35-year-old Chris Chaney. He’s known among college coaches nationwide as someone who can mold talented players into college-ready stars.

The headmaster is Colin Stevens. A 54-year-old London, England, native, he knows Chaney from their time together at a similar prep school in Maryland, and the two understand how each can help the other.

Chaney wants Stevens to run a school with strong academics for his players. Stevens wants Chaney to assemble basketball teams that draw fans to the 1,400-seat Mulberry Street Recreation Center in Lenoir, the attention of prominent coaches, and, he hopes, enough money to guarantee the school’s survival.

Marketing through athletics is hardly a new phenomenon in education. Universities have it down to a science. But small prep schools, experts say, are beginning to realize its benefits, as well as the potential for abuse that attends college athletics.

“I think in the last five years, the proliferation of prep school basketball has basically replaced junior college basketball,” said Dave Telep, the national recruiting director for Scout.com, an online recruiting publication. “Each year, it seems, new places are popping up.”

Patterson’s perennial struggle

Patterson has struggled financially for years. The Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina had to shut the school down for the 1994-95 school year because of declining enrollment and revenue.It reopened a year later as a nondenominational college prep school, but it has hardly thrived since then. Its enrollment sank to as few as 15 just five years ago.

Stevens was running a consulting firm in Maryland in summer 2004 when Patterson asked him to help the struggling school increase enrollment and marketing opportunities. A year later, the school asked him if he was interested in the headmaster’s job, and Stevens immediately realized how basketball, led by his old friend Chaney, might help Patterson survive, even thrive.

The team makes use of Patterson’s fifth-year program, which allows students who have graduated from high school to boost their games and grades for a year before enrolling in college.

As is the case with the other students, some players receive tuition breaks because of donations from individuals, organizations and area churches, Stevens said, but they largely pay their own way. The school bases financial assistance for any student entirely on need, he said. The school offers no scholarships, academic or athletic.

Of the prep team’s 18 players, 13 are enrolled in the fifth-year program. In many cases, the players have already decided where they want to play college ball, but they’re ineligible because their grades don’t meet the NCAA minimum requirements for Division I.

So college coaches frequently refer them to schools like Patterson, where fifth-year students typically spend six hours per day in classes such as American and World Literature and math and writing preparation courses for the SAT.

Another benefit: Players don’t lose any years of college eligibility at Patterson. Players do at junior and community colleges.

No one knows how many of the small, private schools exist, but Scout.com’s Telep said he knows of about 30, primarily in the South and East, with at least one Division I prospect.

These schools typically play each other; since early October, Patterson has played other prep teams throughout the state and in tournaments in the Northeast, earning a record of 21-1.

As at any level, high school or college, abuse is possible. The risk rises especially in prep schools because they don’t answer to high school athletic associations or public school systems.

If the unscrupulous want to, they can slide talented players through their curricula and have others take standardized tests for them, said Bob Gibbons, a Lenoir-based basketball recruiting expert.

But Gibbons and Telep were quick to say that’s not the case at Patterson. There’s a built-in incentive for people like Chaney, who has a good reputation, to respect the system, they said.

If players who have come through Patterson turn out to be discipline problems or classroom failures in college, coaches will be less likely to refer future players to him.

“Chris does a really good job in two areas,” Telep said. “Traditionally, guys will get qualified (under Chaney), and once guys go with Chaney, they typically stick with their (college) commitments.”

A place for focus

Chaney and his assistant, Tim Thomas, said they coach prep school in part because it gives them a chance to work with talented players and make connections with college coaches who might keep them in mind for jobs.

It’s not the money. Chaney declined to reveal his salary but said, “I was making more five years ago than I am today.”

The main reason, he said, is that he enjoys helping players fulfill their goals of playing college ball. He has succeeded before.

He spent the past four years at The Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, where his team went 40-0 last year and won acclaim as the nation’s best prep team. In his last three years at Laurinburg, Chaney coached 50 players who signed letters of intent to play for Division I programs.

He left Laurinburg for Patterson, he said, largely because of what he sees as Patterson’s potential and because of his friendship with Stevens.

Ray Brewer III, a point guard from the Washington, D.C., area, typifies the kind of player Chaney attracts. The 19-year-old graduated from high school in May, but his grade-point average and ACT score weren’t high enough for Division I.

So he enrolled at Patterson to improve both areas. It helped that he knew Chaney and Stevens from The Newport School in Silver Spring, Md., where he spent his eighth-grade year.

Brewer’s father, Ray Brewer Jr., was a star wrestler in high school in the late 1970s but never attended college, despite scholarship offers.

“I think he just needed to find a way to apply himself more and go to prep school, where he can be away from a lot of things and just focus,” Ray Brewer Jr. said. “I told him, ‘Get that focus and get your academics where they need to be, and your future’s as big as you want to make it.’”

The Patterson School

Founded: 1909.Enrollment: About 80.

Tuition: $8,900 for day students, $17,250 for five-day-per-week boarders, $19,900 for seven-day-per-week boarders. About half of the student body receives financial assistance.

Athletics: Men’s prep basketball, men’s and women’s high school basketball and men’s soccer.

More information: www.pattersonschool.org .

College Commitments

Seven players on The Patterson School’s prep basketball team have committed to play for Division I-A programs:

Hashim Baily, Memphis

Tirell Baines, College of Charleston

Tony Crocker, Oklahoma

Kenyan Harman, UNC Charlotte (verbal)

Jordan Hill, Arizona

Roburt Sallie, Washington (verbal)

Toni Soda, Nebraska

Greg Lacour: (828) 324-0055

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Copyright (c) 2005, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

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