This is about options.
If you are a parent of a young basketball player, you should like what Notre Dame of West Haven is doing.
This also is about preservation.
If you are one of the 23 high schools in the Southern Connecticut Conference — any CIAC school within an hour radius, really —you should appreciate Notre Dame’s initiative to combat an exodus of basketball players to prep schools and keep their student-athletes for four years.
Starting next school year, Notre Dame will have a post-graduate basketball program separate from Jason Shea’s high school team, currently ranked fourth in the state. The team will have its own coach, Nick DeFeo, currently overseeing the Woodstock Academy Blue team. The team will only be for high school graduates and will have a separate academic curriculum. There will be no boarders. The plan is to play in the Power 5 Conference league.
“There is a big phobia in this state about the private-public school turf war,” SCC commissioner Al Carbone said. “We are a diverse league, public-private, urban-suburban. As our league has evolved over 25 years, we’ve had a lot of diversity of thought. What may be good for New Haven may not be good for Madison. What may be good for Amity-Woodbridge may not be good for Fairfield Prep.
“All I know is over the last couple of years we have seen a tremendous amount of kids leaving our high schools to go to prep schools and repeating a year. Those are family decisions. With what Woodstock Academy has done (adding prep teams), I think it’s great Notre Dame thought about it and said, ‘Why not us?’ The CIAC gave its blessing with its stipulations and my reaction was ‘Great idea.’ All we ever do is talk about our problems. We never offer solutions. Guess what? Notre Dame just created one.”
The SCC has lost at least a dozen basketball players in the past couple of years. The story has been repeated around the state. Look, prep schools aren’t the athletic bogeyman. It’s wrong to paint them as such. Public schools go after Catholic schools in their own leagues for having unfair advantages. So we can argue this stuff all day. Strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons abound.
The vital point is this: No size fits all. All families should get as much information as possible and do what’s right for them. Notre Dame is opening a door for kids from New Haven to Bridgeport to Fairfield to Westport to something that wasn’t readily available. Bully for them.
“This is something to counter the narrative of prep schools coming in and offering kids the opportunity to reclassify and essentially do a fifth year with them,” said Shea, also Notre Dame’s athletic director. “The idea is to allow these kids to play for their high school programs, enjoy their careers, play in front of good hometown crowds, which they really don’t get the opportunity to do at prep school.
“So often kids leave too early and this will help families make a more educated decision. That’s my biggest thing. The very highest-level kids know. That’s different and such a small sample. Almost everyone else has no idea where they stand as sophomores, even as juniors, very few. Prep schools often are $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a year and I know they don’t necessarily pay the full amount. But for $16,000, if they feel they need a fifth year, we’re giving an affordable stay-at-home choice and we’ll be playing at a much higher level than a lot of local prep schools.”
Whether the team plays in the Power Five AAA division — which has Woodstock Academy Gold, filled with Division I players, and MacDuffie, with UConn commit James Bouknight — or in the AA division, which has Woodstock’s Blue team, is still to be determined.
“Depends on the players coming in,” Shea said.
“I think it’s a good thing to offer post-grad kids something a little more local,” said Hamden Hall Country Day coach Sean Doherty, whose school plays in the prep Fairchester Athletic Association. “I do think it’s hard to do without dormitories.
“It really doesn’t affect us. We don’t accept post-graduates. We reclassify academically. It’s apples and oranges.”
Shea points to a partnership with nearby University of New Haven for a shuttle service running from the West Haven train station. He said Notre Dame already draws from 27 towns, so this is doable for Fairfield County and some Hartford County kids.
There are lots of reasons for basketball players to go post-grad: Get better at basketball. Get more exposure. Improve grades. Grow into their body. Get stronger. Mature mentally and emotionally. Recover from injury. Shea considered how he went to play for Glen Miller at Connecticut College out of Notre Dame at age 17. He said he would have been a perfect candidate for the new program.
From Tremont Waters to, now, Connor Raines, Notre Dame has placed nine players in college basketball the past five years. Those numbers skew much higher than recent statistics from the NCAA that show only 3.4 percent of all high school players play any level of college. Every parent dreams about their kid getting a DI basketball scholarship and 99 percent are met with disappointment. Families in all sports must get better acquainted with avenues in Division III. There is financial aid. There is aid for outstanding academics. There are presidential grants. My own son had two Division III schools interested in him as a second-team Class M All-State player at Plainfield. By the time he finished as a post-grad on Putnam Science’s second team, that number grew to 15. Our investment, financially, paid off threefold and, as far as actual playing time, exponentially. Again, every experience is different, but there is power in a postgrad year.
Shea, who lost Tim Dawson to Hamden Hall, said there may be one player a year from Notre Dame that moves on to school’s post-grad team.
“People probably think we’re doing this to enhance our (existing) program,” Shea said. “It’s not true at all. We are doing really well. I’m very defensive of the CIAC and the SCC and want them to do well. I know there’s some archaic anti-private school and archaic anti-AAU sentiment. But if you’re not in this world and existing in a positive way, you’re not going to keep your kid four years. They need AAU exposure. Some need a fifth year to get recruited. We’re giving area schools something they can fight back with.”
Notre Dame’s post-grad curriculum calls for two NCAA core classes, with the ability to replace one previous grade, to help the GPA. An SAT prep class. A couple of electives including career-oriented courses like video production. The SCC had a Board of Governors meeting and Shea and Carbone said there were many questions. Both felt the result was positive.
“The simple answer for some people is ‘This can’t be done, they’re cheating, they’re recruiting,’ ” Carbone said. “Those people will never change. But if we’re going to keep going along this path, there isn’t going to be any more high school sports. So good for Notre Dame. There probably are schools saying ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’ So let’s give this a real chance.”
“People are going to see the positives,” Shea said.
They certainly should appreciate the options.