and football coach Steve Filippone had this to say about prospective college recruits:
“If they’re good enough, they’ll find you.”
That’s been the case for CIAC member schools for decades.
Mason’s teammate Seth Willis, an offensive lineman, decided on BYU, while Bloomfield receiver Russell Thompson-Bishop gave his verbal commitment to play at Syracuse.
In addition, Staples tight end Ryan Fitton (UConn), Norwalk defensive tackle James Makszin (Temple) and Windsor receiver/defensive back Jason Pinnock (Boston College) all committed to Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) programs.
While CIAC member schools have a strong history of sending players to the next level, many athletes in recent years have opted to go the prep school route, attending schools such as Cheshire Academy and Choate in an attempt to improve their stock.
That path has been a successful one for several standouts who began their career at a CIAC school.
Hamden residents C.J. Holmes and C.J. Lewis are both seniors at Cheshire Academy and recently committed to play at Notre Dame and Tennessee, respectively. Bloomfield’s Dillon Harris transferred to Cheshire Academy this summer and has been offered by Maryland, Boston College, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple and, most recently, Michigan.
“I’ve said this all along, there’s tremendous programs in the state of Connecticut,” Cheshire Academy coach David Dykeman said. “I think we offer something that’s a little bit more unique. We offer very small class size. We have a full-time college counseling staff, that’s all they do.
“So, the resources that are available to our guys I think are tremendous. And I do think our college placement is speaking for itself at this point. That is our No. 1 goal, to help our student-athletes achieve their dream of playing at the collegiate level. When you do that, I think that’s where people are starting to come.”
Another Hamden resident, Tarik Black, also a senior Cheshire Academy, has received more than 20 FBS offers. A decision about his collegiate plans appears imminent.
Black, Holmes and Lewis all played for Notre Dame-West Haven as freshmen.
“I think it’s definitely a trend that some kids are leaving, especially for reclassifying, which you can’t under CIAC rules,”
Notre Dame-West Haven coach Tom Marcucci said. “In prep schools there are no rules like that. You’re seeing it happen more and more.”
Students at prep schools can reclassify and repeat a year, which cannot happen at CIAC member schools. A prep school coach can also call a high school student from another school. That would be a violation under CIAC rules.
A student who attends a CIAC school can repeat a grade for academic reasons, but a student is still only allowed four years of athletic eligibility at a CIAC school.
Marcucci stressed that he believes a student-athlete should attend any school they choose; after all, his school draws from multiple towns. But Marcucci disagrees with some of the techniques used to persuade a student-athlete to attend a non-CIAC school.
“I don’t like fact that they can call kids that are on your roster,” Marcucci said. “Kids see the publicity, and the social media stuff, and it does have an impact on them.
“From my point of view, at my school, we want to coach the kids that are there. Kids can go to any school they want. I’m not going to be concerned with the kids that leave.”
Dykeman says while he does recruit middle school players, he does not recruit players that are currently enrolled in a high school.
“If that kid contacts me, then he is showing interest and we will then recruit him,” Dykeman said. “But we do get a range (of athletes). Boys, a lot of time, want to mature more. The ability to reclassify and repeat a year is a tremendous opportunity, and it’s something they cannot do at other levels.”
Dykeman said reclassifying was instrumental for an athlete like Lewis.
“When you look at C.J. Lewis, and you look at his growth and maturity, with that repeat year, where he is today, compared to maybe had he graduated a year ago, you see a big difference,” Dykeman said. “We see that all the time when you look at our guys. Many of them were young, so, age-wise, they’re in a much more appropriate grade now. That’s a big piece of it, for sure. We have guys that need to improve academically and we have guys that are coming here because they want to go to the Ivy League.”
Cheshire Academy senior Brandon Sebastian, who played at West Haven High before transferring, has committed to Boston College.
“When he left West Haven, he already had an offer from Syracuse,” West Haven coach Rich Boshea said. “So, how bad are we doing (at West Haven)? We’re getting kids into college.”
Sebastian said he had offers from Syracuse, UConn, Rhode Island and Temple while still at West Haven.
“It (going to Cheshire Academy) put me on a bigger radar,” Sebastian said. “Obviously knowing that Tarik comes here and he gets the bigger coaches from the bigger schools. Coach Dykeman then plugs us in to help get recruited. I think it helped a lot.”
Sebastian said the biggest difference between a CIAC school and a prep school was academics.
“It’s harder in the classroom, more work,” Sebastian said. “It gets you ready for how college would be, and the work load, and how to get stuff done when you’re traveling all over the place.”
West Haven also lost up-and-coming lineman James McCarthy, a 6-foot-4 would-be junior tackle who transferred to Choate. McCarthy is the son of former West Haven coach Ed McCarthy.
“I see it from both sides,” Boshea said. “I know it was a tough one for McCarthy. Everyone has to do what’s best for them.”
Most will agree that attending a prep school has its benefits, especially academically. Class sizes are significantly smaller at prep schools, which allows more one-on-one interaction between student and teacher.
“I’m here, I live on campus,” said Dykeman, who is also the Associate Head of School for Community Life and Athletics at Cheshire Academy.
“I’m here year round, it’s all right here. This is a fully inclusive environment. I understand not only their football skills, but I understand how they do in study hall in the evenings and what’s going on in their classes. That’s one of the big things. You can do that in a small school, you can do that in small environment. You can’t do that with 1,000 kids. And, again, it’s not a knock, but these are the things that differentiate us.”
Black said while he thought the academics were fairly similar at Notre Dame-West Haven then they are at Cheshire Academy he said he benefitted from the ability to travel to college camps and clinics while at Cheshire Academy.
“The difference between CIAC (schools) and here is that the kids here, they travel all across the country to get noticed and things like that,” Black said. “They go to a bunch of college camps and a bunch of recruiting camps to put their name on the map. It’s what I did.”
Christon Gill, a 2009 New Haven Register All-State quarterback at Bridgeport Central, spent one year at Avon Old Farms before landing at Western Carolina. Gill said that, looking back, he would choose to attend Avon Old Farms right after eighth grade.
“One-hundred percent,” Gill said. “I’ll start there and I would finish there.”
Gill said Avon Old Farms allowed him to stay more focused in the classroom. Gill originally intended to attend Penn State after Bridgeport Central but fell just short of qualifying academically. Gill said a prep school is beneficial to all students, but especially for one like him who needed a bit of a push academically.
“I think it’s good for every kid,” Gill said. “I am not downing public schools, I just think there’s so many opportunities out there academic-wise.”
Gill has since become a mentor to Taisun Phommachanh, who guided Harding to the state playoffs last season as a sophomore. This summer, Phommachanh and his family announced he would transfer to Gill’s school at Avon Old Farms and reclassify. Avon Old Farms is coached by Bill Mella, the former head man at Southington.
Filippone at Hand has had to adjust to the transfer of two talented players in recent years. Jesse Walsh, a junior quarterback, is now at Avon Old Farms, while Shane Sweitzer, a junior tight end/linebacker is at Choate playing for head coach L.J. Spinnato, a Hand alum.
“I certainly hold nothing against anybody who decided to give their kid a better shot, and can afford it,” Filippone said. “It was the right thing for that young man (Sweitzer) and, in the long run, the right decision for Jesse as well. We certainly wish them the best.”
While Filippone understands the decisions involved, he is an unabashed supporter of playing for your hometown school.
“What they’re missing, and what I think is one of the most magnificent experiences you can have, is playing in front of the people who watched you grow and with the kids you grew up playing with,” Filippone said. “The joy of playing and representing the town I grew up in, you couldn’t have gotten me out of there with a ton of dynamite.”
It may be too soon to tell what affect the trend towards attending prep school will have on CIAC schools.
“I don’t think it’s a threat to CIAC schools at all,” Filippone said. “You lose a few really good ones, and you find another. It actually makes some of the other kids better because now they have to step up and step in.”
Football has been less affected than other sports by athletes choosing different paths other then playing for their high school team.
“We saw it with soccer and lacrosse and AAU (basketball), but we have kept high school football to high school football for the longest time,” Filippone said. “We’re moving towards specialization, and I think we have been for some time. We’ve been spoiled. We really haven’t had to deal with that in high school football.”
Filippone acknowledged that coaches and players at CIAC schools must adapt to the evolving culture in high school football that is present today.
“It’s just a trend, it’s the way it’s going,” Filippone said. “It’s unavoidable, but it has to be recognized for what it is. We really have to up the ante and do more for our kids, do a better job of helping them maintain their academics. We at the high school level have to do that if we want to keep our best kids here