Jere Quinn has been at it for four decades at St. Thomas More.
One of the most renowned prep school coaches in the country, Quinn has been running his post-graduate program with plenty of success (over 1,000 victories) and one mantra: education first.
“At St. Thomas More, we’ve always tried to put the player’s academic situation first, athletics second,” said Quinn, a member of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. “Not everybody follows that model, but we have at St. Thomas More. Anyone who judges success by wins and losses is in it for the wrong reasons. All success should be placed on college placement and preparing students for college.”
New England has long been a hotbed for prep school basketball, whether kids do it as post-grads or choose to leave their respective CIAC school for prep and reclassify. There are plenty of options.
Now, you can add another: Notre Dame Prep. The West Haven-based parochial school will be starting its own post-graduate program this fall.
“We want to give our players an opportunity to stay and play in the program that develops them and prepares them for the college level,” Notre Dame athletic director and boys basketball coach Jason Shea said.
There are several different questions for Notre Dame Prep. How well will it work? How will it impact the current landscape of prep school basketball? How will it impact the Southern Connecticut Conference? Will the league members be happy with a high school that draws from several towns already, now that it will have a post-graduate program?
These and other questions will be answered in time.
The Woodstock model
Notre Dame Prep went public with its plans only a few weeks ago and Shea, the high school coach and athletic director, said the school has already fielded several inquiries about the program. The admissions process will soon begin, the curriculum will be set up so as many as 15 high school graduates can begin class — and practice — in late August.
Shea has made it clear Notre Dame Prep has no intentions of going after current high school players to transfer in. In fact, one of his reasons for starting the program was the number of kids from the New Haven area that have transferred to prep schools and reclassified.
Twelve players from the SCC have transferred over the past two seasons. The majority have gone to schools in the Fairchester Athletic Association, which do not allow post-graduates — but do offer kids the chance to transfer in and reclassify — or repeat a year.
Even Quinn has one of the 12: Desmond Claude transferred to St. Thomas More from Hillhouse after his freshman year. Quinn said it was a decision made by the family.
“This was a family decision,” Quinn said. “This was a rarity. Historically, we have had kids finish high school. Desmond is a wonderful kid from a wonderful family.”
Even Shea lost one of those 12: Tim Dawson to Hamden Hall Country Day.
“I believe we need to do things to make the CIAC (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the public school’s governing body for athletics) more relevant in college coaches’ eyes. We want the kids to enjoy the high school experience, play in front of sold-out gyms, make it a tremendous experience for those players and their parents,” Shea said. “This program will give kids in the local areas an opportunity to stay at their high schools. We (Notre Dame-West Haven High) are not going to have 15 seniors matriculate to our PG program every year. At most three on an annual basis.”
Notre Dame isn’t the first school in the CIAC to try this. Woodstock Academy has its own high school program and two prep school teams, the Gold and Blue teams. The Gold is among the top prep school teams in the country.
So Shea had conversations with Tony Bergeron, coach of the Gold team, about how to go about starting a post-grad program. He did a conference call with Bergeron and Nick DeFeo, coach of the Gold team.
“I asked Tony if he had anyone in mind who understood the world of prep school. I needed the right guy to start our program. I was very surprised Tony said his lead assistant. (DeFeo) was very interested in starting his own program.
“Nick is young, energetic and extremely smart. What I really like about him are a lot of his former players are supportive of him. He’s been very good at developing relationships at the post-grad level.”
Once Woodstock’s season concludes, DeFeo will leave and become an assistant director of admissions at Notre Dame, in addition to recruiting to land 15 seniors into the program.
Neither DeFeo nor Bergeron would speak for this story. Bergeron said neither would speak on the subject until Woodstock’s seasons conclude.
“I give them a lot of credit. The program is a good idea. By hiring Nick, they are hiring someone who has been at Woodstock the last 2 years and in many ways, will try and follow what Woodstock has done’ said Adam Finkelstein, a national recruiting analyst for ESPN.
But not everyone thinks this is a good idea — or how it seemingly snuck up on the SCC members.
In noting that he had been in contact with “leadership at all levels” before proceeding, Shea said that included SCC commissioner Al Carbone. That initial conversation happened some time late in the fall.
Carbone was in favor of the idea from the go — as long as Shea went through the proper channels.
“All too often, we talk about problems with high school sports in this state, but we never create solutions,” Carbone said. “Great job by Notre Dame getting this done. It is always great to be first at something and Jason Shea and the ND administration really thought this through and took advantage.”
On Jan. 24, Shea sent an email to the league athletic directors to notify them about the start of the prep school. The following morning was an SCC Board of Governors meeting, where school athletic directors and principals meet once every several months.
There, Shea answered several questions about the post-grad program That afternoon, the news became public.
“We did push it out to some coaches to get feedback, which was very positive,” Shea said. “I anticipated a lot of questions. Overall, it was a very positive experience. Some people were apprehensive about it and I understand that perspective. … If he (Carbone) thought it was a terrible idea, maybe I would have backed off a little bit.”
The news caught plenty of people by surprise. West Haven athletic director Jon Capone said items of this magnitude are normally placed on the agenda well ahead of time and discussed.
“The first presentation should not have been done by email. It should have been done first at a league meeting,” Capone said. “When it was presented at the board of governors, it wasn’t on the original agenda. It was added at the last minute. It was a lack of communication. I don’t think it was handled properly. In my 20 years as an AD in this league, we have never communicated on issues before in that manner. … I don’t know whether (Notre Dame Prep) is wrong or right. I don’t have enough information.”
Anna Mahon, the chairperson of the SCC Board of Governors and principal in charge of the league, confirmed she found out about the post-grad program the day before the board of governors meeting.
“I don’t know what I would have preferred. We all had a 24-hour turnaround. I literally wrote it into our agenda,” said Mahon, the principal of Amity.
Mahon noted that Notre Dame will be making a formal presentation about the program at the next board of governors meeting on May 17. Carbone confirmed that and said this is not something that normally happens, but Shea was happy to do so.
“One of my recommendations to Notre Dame was to send something to the athletic directors before they read it in the newspaper,” Carbone said. “With the (January) board of governor’s meeting, what better way than to have a real conversation in real time. You can study things for years and years and nothing gets done.”
Carbone’s status is voted upon each year, normally at that May meeting. “I report to the principals and the athletic directors. If they have a question about my job performance, they can address that at our May Board of Governor’s meeting,” he said.
The league basketball coaches are not in favor of Notre Dame Prep. In an informal poll conducted by Hearst Conneticut Media provided to the 21 coaches on the condition of anonymity, coaches were given seven multiple choice answers. Coaches were asked to select multiple answers if applicable.
Only two of the league coaches responded they were in favor of the program. Five coaches were against it, while four more were neutral on the subject. Six felt they would have liked to have known more before it became public. Four coaches would like to see Notre Dame voted out of the SCC and two more responded that maybe it’s time for its respective school to explore leaving.
One coach felt he wished his school had come up with the idea first. Five coaches did not respond to the email.
“I think the big issues for myself and in talking to other coaches, the whole secrecy, it seems very underhanded,” East Haven basketball coach Ricky Narracci said. “It’s very hard to keep anything a secret these days. It’s a little insulting to a lot of coaches to have it sprung on us at the last hour. (The ADs) were asked if they had any questions and (Shea) was glad to answer, but at that point, it was a done deal anyways.”
Narracci feels it’s another advantage for Notre Dame, a parochial school.
“I think it’s another built-in advantage for a private school that doesn’t need another advantage,” Narracci said. “We are already competing against our own kids who leave our schools for various reasons. Now they can have kids working out against the post-grad kids on a daily basis. That’s an advantage. They say it will be separate. Why would they do that? If I was them, I’d have my kids practice against those kids. Why wouldn’t you?”
Shea reiterated the idea of not wanting rising juniors or seniors to transfer in for basketball purposes. He can’t prevent them from applying to attend the high school.
“The idea that a post-grad program will attract ninth graders to Notre Dame, I don’t see that being the case,” Shea said. “If you exist in the basketball world, which I do, I guarantee you that ninth graders and their parents are not enrolling at a school with the idea of five years. They want to go for four years.”
Carbone reiterated the “parameters Notre Dame has to abide by” from the CIAC and that “Jason Shea is not coaching this team.” And his thoughts on the informal poll of the league coaches?
“I’m surprised our basketball coaches, a close-knit community of people, didn’t really know about it,” Carbone said. “(The negative thoughts) defeat the purpose of why the league was formed 27 years ago. This leads me to believe that 27 years later, a league like the SCC would never come together because of regressive thoughts like this. We have an inherent distrust for people in our league.”
A competitive market
Fifteen student-athletes will be able to enroll beginning in mid-August and begin classes — and practice — when the high school students return from summer break.
The cost will be the same as the high school tuition: approximately $16,000. Core courses and electives will be offered in addition to SAT prep.
While prep schools normally offer scholarships to their best players — Notre Dame will be doing so through a financial aid process.
“I don’t think 15 players will pay $16,000,” Shea said. “From a school standpoint, this will be a revenue generator, which is a positive for Notre Dame.”
Shea had many conversations with his predecessor, former longtime athletic director Tom Marcucci, then went to the school president, Robert Curis to get his OK. He also reached out to the CIAC to make sure it could be done and, if so, how.
“In speaking with Jason we agreed that they can not play under the name Notre Dame of West Haven,” said Gregg Simon, the associate executive director for the CIAC. “We also agreed that all students in this program will be post-graduates so they may not take courses at Notre Dame-West Haven along with the rest of the student population. Separate courses can be created for these students. Obviously since these students are post-graduates they can not appear on any CIAC eligibility list. This is a completely separate program designed for post-graduate students who no longer have any high school eligibility.”
Shea noted that CIAC rules stipulate that up to 50 percent of the current high school team can participate in an open gym setting.
“I don’t see issues with that. We have a lot of kids who don’t play basketball in our open gyms,” Shea said. “It’s an all-boys school, so our gym is not as crowded as you may think. We don’t deal with gym issues. There are 13 sports here, so there is plenty of time for teams to share in there.”
Shea said he had to get approval from the school’s board of directors and then final approval from the Brothers of Holy Cross — who oversee the school — before going forward.
The schedule will be approximately 30 games, with most of the home games being completed before the high school practice begins in either late November or early December, Shea said. Notre Dame Prep will compete at either the AA or AAA level and in the Power 5 Conference.
Some schools in the Power 5 include: both Woodstock teams, MacDuffie, Masters (CT), Commonwealth Academy (Mass.), Redemption Christian Academy (Mass.), Hoosac (N.Y.), Bradford Christian (Mass.) and Capital Prep Harbor in Bridgeport.
The one drawback — depending on your perspective — is Notre Dame Prep will not offer boarding. Many programs do offer boarding, including Woodstock Academy.
And both Quinn and Finkelstein agree this could make it hard for Notre Dame Prep in a competitive market.
“From an athletic standpoint, being able to create a program to be sustainable, that (no boarding) will be a challenge. Essentially, they are limiting themselves,” said Finkelstein, who has long coordinated the National Prep Championships, previously coached at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford and also helped start the New England Recruiting Report. “I applaud his willingness to create an alternative, but I think the notion that there already wasn’t an alternative is somewhat misplaced. There are dozens of schools that have a post-graduate program and an option for athletes in place, basketball players in particular.”
Shea said the high school “draws from 27 towns” and with a new train station in the city of West Haven, he doesn’t feel the lack of a boarding option should be an issue, especially with a shuttle available from the station to the University of New Haven, located right across the street.
It will take some time to see if Notre Dame Prep can pan out. What kind of players will they get? Will they draw from beyond the area, including Fairfield County? Will players be discouraged from reclassifying and staying at programs through the completion of high school?
These and other questions will remain unanswered for some time, as will Shea’s basis for success.
“Can we field a team every year? Are there enough players and are they moving on to the collegiate level?” Shea said. “I’m not naive to think some people will be critical of the program and I’m OK with it. We are doing something for 15 players to achieve their dream of playing at the college level and at the end of the day, I can’t see too much wrong with it.”
Tuition “will more than cover our expenses,” which Shea said will include the installation of a shot clock. The prep schools in New England normally play with a 35-second shot clock.
It may help to follow the advice for someone who is in the New England Basketball Hall of Fame and has been an integral part of the prep school landscape for close to 40 years.
“It’s an interesting venture. Catholic schools have to be creative to stay current. They have to try new things,” Quinn said. “If it’s all done properly and above board and it gets kids academically prepared to go to college, then it’s a good thing. I’m an educator. I always put school first. There are programs out there who put basketball first.”