YAIAA basketball stars are leaving for prep schools. Why it's happening and is it worth it?

Matt Allibone
York Daily Record

This past July, Tommy Haugh spoke excitedly about the experience of playing for a New Oxford basketball team that went further in the postseason than any squad in school history. 

In August, he admitted he was nervous as he explained his decision to transfer to Perkiomen, a boarding school outside of Philadelphia. 

This March, he sounded much more confident as he reflected on the move and what it has offered him in both athletics and life. 

"It's been going great," the high school junior said. "It was a little hard to adjust to at first ... 

"But we have stuff that helps me get better. The competition is different. The gym is always open." 

New Oxford's Tommy Haugh transferred to the Perkiomen School this past summer after a breakout postseason for New Oxford last year. The 6-foot-8 junior has an offer from Mount St. Mary's.

Haugh was one of three YAIAA boys' basketball stars to transfer to a prep or charter school before the 2021 PIAA basketball season, along with Gettysburg's Quadir Copeland and York Suburban's Savon Sutton.

Preparatory schools, which are designed to prepare students for higher education and can also be used for post-graduate years, have become a growing presence in youth athletics. One of these, Scotland Campus Sports, sits in Franklin County and is quickly becoming a powerhouse on the prep scene. 

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These institutions often pull top athletes away from public school districts or small private schools. It happens in all sports, not just basketball. 

But it's been happening more frequently with York and Adams county boys' basketball players. A league that has just started to see an uptick in highly recruited talent has now lost three players with NCAA Division I scholarship offers over the past year.

This comes three years after Jarace Walker — perhaps the most talented player to come through York County — opted to play for nationally prestigious IMG Academy in Florida rather than his hometown Susquehannock High School. The 6-foot-8 Walker holds nearly 20 offers including Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina.

"I think this has been happening in bigger cities around the country, and our area was maybe five years behind the curve," said Central York head coach Jeff Hoke, who previously coached at Bishop McDevitt. "There are some really talented players in this area starting to get that exposure.

"Prep basketball is like a full-time job ... it's like playing in college. That's the experience." 

Quadir Copeland transferred to a prep school in New Jersey and reclassified as a junior this season after earning a number of Division I offers at Gettysburg.

Players who have left their local districts for these schools say the benefits include facing high-end competition on a regular basis, getting more exposure from top Division I coaches and acclimating to life away from home before college. 

The downside: Missing the opportunity to play with childhood friends and experience the community excitement that comes with high school sports. 

"That's the only drawback I see," said Haugh, a 6-foot-8 forward who earned an offer from Mount St. Mary's this past summer. "Just not being able to hang with my close friends and develop those bonds." 

It was only a few years ago that current Michigan player Eli Brooks led a basketball revival at Spring Grove that routinely filled gyms with autograph-seeking fans. The following year, recent Towson transfer Antonio Rizzuto led a Northeastern team so popular, fans often had to contact the school ahead of time if they wanted to attend games. 

Some around high school sports worry that if more talented players leave the area, those community-building experiences — deep playoff runs, packed gymnasiums — will become less frequent. 

Others believe this is just the next phase in youth sports. 

Most believe this trend won't stop anytime soon. 

"Obviously you would love to see the best talent stay and put York County on the map," said Eastern York head coach Justin Seitz, who also runs the York Ballers AAU program. "Every kid that goes to a prep school and gets a scholarship is going to draw more interest. 

"It's something we gotta be prepared for." 

Some around high school sports worry that players leaving the area will prevent community-building experiences like deep playoff runs and packed gyms -- like the ones at Northeastern a few years ago. Here, the Northeastern student section erupts during the final seconds of the Bobcats' 86-84 double overtime win against Archbishop Carroll in the 2017 state playoffs.

A different experience 

Sam Sutton believes he would've been an ideal candidate to attend a prep school during his playing days. 

The former York High star was only 17 and still maturing as a player and person when he enrolled at NCAA Division I mid-major St. Francis in 1997. 

So when his son, Savon, picked up four scholarship offers from smaller Division I schools (Morgan State, Howard, Towson and Bryant) after his freshman season of high school last year, Sam was open to exploring other options. 

A 6-foot-4 point guard, Savon transferred from York Suburban to Legacy Early College in South Carolina this past December. LEC is a public charter school, but provides some of the same experiences as prep schools. Its basketball team is ranked No. 2 in the state by MaxPreps. 

"When you're talking about what the prep and charters provide, it's specialization. They adapt to student-athletes and cater to them," said Sutton, who trains many YAIAA basketball players and coaches AAU. "Just the value that is placed on athletics. The facilities are great. If Savon wants to get shots up in the middle of the night, he's able to." 

Savon Sutton transferred from York Suburban to a charter school in South Carolina after picking up four mid-major Division I offers following his freshman season.

Sutton was adamant that academics — specifically more one-on-one time with tutors and teachers — played a part in Savon switching schools. Haugh said the academics at Perkiomen also feature much smaller class sizes which allows "the teacher to help you a lot more." 

And while Haugh said the uncertainty over whether the PIAA season would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in his decision to transfer, it wasn't the biggest factor. Sam Sutton said the same thing in regard to Savon's decision. 

"The pandemic nudged me a good bit, but we were looking at Legacy and other options for next year," Sutton said. 

Prep schools include tuition and can be expensive, but Haugh said he's receiving two scholarships and "everything is mostly taken care of." Copeland, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, said in August he was receiving a scholarship to attend New Jersey's Life Center Academy.

Those who've attended prep schools say the basketball experience is also much different. 

Jalen Gorham helped lead York Country Day to back-to-back District 3 Class 1A titles in 2017 and 2018 but decided to spend his senior season at the MacDuffie School, a prep institution in Massachusetts. The 6-foot-6 Gorham went from being by far the biggest and most athletic kid on the court to an entirely different situation. 

"There was a major gap in the competition," Gorham said. "I was playing against Division I players every night. At York Country Day, I had room for error. At a prep school you've gotta have that 'dog' mindset where you've gotta put 100% every night." 

Seitz, who coached Gorham in AAU, said a typical high school team "might have one future college player" on the roster. That's not the case at prep schools, where most of the roster is hoping to play at a high level. Haugh said half his team at Perkiomen will play Division I basketball. 

Prep schools can also give kids more opportunities to play the positions they'll play in college. 

At 6-foot-8, Haugh was always the tallest player in the YAIAA and often played center for New Oxford. That won't be the case in college, where he projects as a stretch forward. 

"We play against 7-footers daily so I've gotta be on the outside (at Perkiomen)," said Haugh, who still shot 3-pointers at New Oxford. "Ball-handling and shooting are the main things I work on here. The gym is always open and we have an assistant who trains you on individual skills." 

Getting more exposure 

Jalen Gorham finished his high school career at a prep school in Massachusetts after two seasons at York Country Day.

Some of the benefits of playing for a prep school can also be found at the AAU level over the summer. 

That's where players often face better competition, play their natural positions and get in front of college coaches. 

The difference is that prep institutions can provide that experience at an even higher level throughout the entire school year. 

"It elevates your game even more than AAU," said Gorham. "And the level of exposure ... it just kind of blew up. I had more examples to showcase myself and talk to bigger-name schools. You don't get that at all the (AAU) events." 

Gorham said there would sometimes be 60 representatives from colleges at MacDuffie's open gyms. Those opportunities haven't been available to players this year due to COVID-19 restrictions on in-person NCAA recruiting, but could return in the future. 

Seitz said the York Ballers frequently play in front of college coaches, but often those from the Division II and Division III levels — which is where most local stars end up. Players looking for more exposure through AAU can potentially join teams in bigger cities. Haugh played for a Philadelphia-based team this past summer, and Sutton has played for a team in Baltimore. 

But families who are paying significant money to drive their kids to those cities in the summer might decide it's worth playing at that level year-round at a prep school — especially if scholarships are provided. 

"At public schools you have kids that don't play basketball all year," said Sam Sutton. "So you have a five-star athlete and you're investing thousands of dollars on him, and now he's gotta sacrifice playing with a kid that doesn't always play." 

Gorham went to MacDuffie with the hope of earning a Division I scholarship, but eventually committed to Division II St. Michael's College in Vermont. Still, he earned consistent playing time as a freshman last year and believes his recruitment was significantly helped by transferring. 

Haugh still only has one Division I offer, but said he's recently been in contact with Hofstra, Boston, William & Mary, Princeton and Lehigh among others. 

"I think I still could've gone Division I staying at New Oxford but the biggest thing with Perkiomen is getting ready for college," Haugh said. "It could be the difference in playing immediately or having to sit until my sophomore year." 

The star who stayed

Spring Grove's Eli Brooks (right) committed to Michigan while remaining at his local school district. He had his father and head coach, James (left), to help guide him through the process.

James Brooks hoped his son's story would help more York County players get recruited by bigger schools. 

He was just as proud of the community engagement Eli Brooks' basketball exploits provided as he was of his Spring Grove-record 2,426 points. 

So while he understands why the area's next crop of stars are looking elsewhere to continue their careers, he does have concerns. 

"I think it ultimately hurts the entire York community when kids show potential and leave," said James Brooks, who coached Eli at Spring Grove. "What becomes of the school or the area? What others have done should make (schools) want to recruit the kids here.

"I've seen the prep schools work for some kids ... and not work so well for others." 

A star player at Gettysburg in the late 1980s, James Brooks left for a nationally ranked private Catholic school in Maryland before returning to his hometown to finish his high school career. He was homesick. But when his youngest son received some opportunities from prep schools a few years ago, James wanted him to understand the full scope of the decision. 

The specialization that draws some kids toward prep programs is what scared the Brooks family. 

"I thought if he could make Spring Grove relevant people would notice him for that and he'd have the chance to be the big fish," Brooks said. "If he went to a prep school they might say, 'You're a shooter' and he wouldn't have to work on rebounding or dribbling. He had to be well-rounded playing at Spring Grove. 

"If you only share the court with people who have the same ability, you can't understand that you might have to give more of yourself." 

Eli picked up offers from major programs like North Carolina State, Ohio State and Villanova before deciding on Michigan, and James acknowledged that much of his recruitment came from playing tournaments around Philadelphia with his Jersey Shore Warriors AAU team. He also said that his own recruiting experiences (he played collegiately for East Stroudsburg) helped him guide Eli through the process. 

Because of that, James Brooks has made himself available as a resource for families in the York area going through the recruitment process for the first time. 

And while he has trepidations about prep schools, he said that high school coaches need to respect players who choose that option. 

"You can't try to hold kids back. You have to help them make good decisions for themselves," Brooks said. "If you make them feel bad about a decision that is life-changing, it will just hurt that family. Nobody wants to be that coach." 

Will players keep leaving? 

Central York's Greg Guidinger could be York County's next highly-recruited player after averaging 16 points per game as a freshman. Guidinger already stands 6-foot-5.

Jay Guidinger played high school basketball at a prestigious private school in Wisconsin before a decorated career at Minnesota-Duluth and two seasons with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1990s. 

He also spent time as an NCAA Division I assistant and has seen how the talent pool at prep schools can elevate players. 

But when a work transfer moved his family — and basketball-playing sons — to York County three years ago, he was more interested in finding an environment his kids enjoyed. 

They found that at Central York. 

"We looked at every option (public and private) and did our research academically, but our boys dictated the decision," said Jay, who stands 6-foot-10 and played center during his playing days. "Central really spoke to them, and we liked the dynamic at the school." 

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Guidinger's youngest son, Greg, is just a freshman but could be the next highly recruited player to come out of York County. Already standing 6-foot-5, Greg averaged 16 points and seven rebounds per game and made 3-pointers at an absurdly high rate (near 60%) for the Panthers varsity team this season. 

Hoke said he's already started to hear from colleges about him. 

But while he knows there are other options out there, Jay Guidinger said his family is "very happy" with Greg playing for Central. 

"He's being pushed at a high level, and we're impressed with the level of basketball," said Jay. "I'm proud Greg stepped up this year, but the next three years are going to bring new additions to the team, and he's going to have to demonstrate he can support them and still function. It's good to have that. 

"No matter where you go, you're going to need to know how to play the game and have tangible and intangible skillsets." 

But as Seitz pointed out: "Every kid has a different situation." 

That means there will always be those who are enticed by prep schools for different reasons. Take Copeland, who is young for his grade and reclassified in the Class of 2022 at his prep school. The former Gettysburg star has since added an offer from Syracuse to a list that includes Penn State, Miami and Maryland. 

Here's one thing local coaches agree upon: If local players continuing proving they have potential, prep schools will continue to be interested. 

Hoke thinks the biggest thing high school coaches can do is help their best players get in touch with colleges early on so they don't feel they need to leave the area for exposure. He said he's confident he'll be able to "get Division I coaches in our gym" to see Guidinger.

Seitz said if public schools focus on helping student-athletes achieve their goals, their programs can still provide great experiences and community engagement. 

Even if some players chose a different path. 

"It's more about helping kids on an individual basis," Seitz said. "It doesn't do us a disservice at all." 

Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.