One of the top high school basketball teams in the country calls this industrial city of 50,000 on the banks of the Ohio River home. Huntington Prep has many of the trappings of other top high school basketball teams — a fancy Web site, international players, sponsorship by a major shoe brand.
Huntington Prep is different from most high school teams, however: It’s not a high school. Rather, it’s a collection of 12 teenage boys who have come to this town on the western edge of the state solely for basketball. The educational aspect of their high school experience is farmed out to St. Joseph’s Central Catholic High School, located just blocks from downtown, where the players attend class each day.
“People think Huntington Prep is our school but it’s not where we go; it’s a name we have on our jersey,” said Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a top junior guard from Scarborough, Ontario, who already holds scholarship offers from such colleges as Arizona, Kansas and Connecticut. “During the day, we’re St. Joe’s students. After school, we’re part of the Huntington Prep basketball team.”
The legitimacy of the team has come under question. West Virginia’s governing body for high school athletics won’t recognize it; the team’s schedule is entirely made up of out-of-state teams or college junior varsity squads. ESPN will not consider Huntington Prep for its national rankings, eliminating it from earning a spot in its National High School Invitational tournament in April. The NCAA has also taken notice.
“We don’t consider [programs like this] as being a part of high school basketball programs in this country,” said Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which represents state high school athletic federations.
The brainchild of Coach Rob Fulford, who created the team in 2008, Huntington Prep is the latest attempt to create a basketball powerhouse for high school-aged boys while staying clear of the NCAA’s efforts against diploma mills, high-powered teams loosely associated with schools with little or no emphasis on education. There are a handful of similarly organized teams around the country.
The idea behind them is simple: Recruit a talented team from across the globe and send the players to an established school for their education while competing as an independent entity. The goal: Build a national powerhouse and secure Division I scholarships for its players.
Some basketball observers are skeptical of Fulford’s motives, but the 38-year-old former pharmaceutical salesman says he simply loves to coach.
“Coaching to me is a passion,” said Fulford, whose Express (24-2) are part of a showcase event Saturday and Sunday at Trinity University in Northeast Washington. “I’m not in this to make money or I would have jumped to college long ago. We scramble from paycheck to paycheck.”
The model for Huntington Prep was started in 2001, when the International Management Group created a basketball academy in Bradenton, Fla., to go along with its golf, tennis and baseball endeavors. The best-known program of this type is Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., an enterprise financed by a Las Vegas car dealer. La Jolla Prep opened for business this school year outside San Diego.
“From 8 until 3:15, Huntington Prep doesn’t really exist,” Fulford said. “We’ve never tried to hide the fact we’re not a school. That’s one of the issues that people bring up — it’s not a school — but at the same time we want to make sure everyone understands these kids are not in Huntington not in school, waking up at 11 o’clock and going to the gym and doing an online class whenever they can do it.”
An academic component
While much has been made of schools whose entire student bodies were composed of basketball players doing online or home-schooling course work, Huntington Prep’s players are regular St. Joe’s students during the day, then are whisked off to practice by Fulford or assistant coach Lazar Milinkovic in a van following the afternoon bell.
“As years go by, more and more are going to be popping up,” said Gary Trousdale, the founder and coach of La Jolla Prep, whose team includes a mix of high school students and players who have graduated from high school.
There is little governing what these teams can do, from the players they bring in to their training regimens to their schedules.
“There are a lot of these that are starting up and unfortunately they don’t have the right strategy or plan in mind and they come and go pretty quick,” Fulford said. “The biggest problem we see in some of the ones popping up is there is not an academic component for it. We are recruiting kids for basketball, but there is an academic component.”