Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) is a private Catholic high school located in the county seat of mostly posh Orange County in Southern California. Its academic standards are high, and 99 percent of its student body goes on to college. Its athletic program is nationally renowned and its facilities, including its temple of a gymnasium, are nothing short of head-spinning.
In other words, this is a place parents dream about sending their children.
"If you were moving to Southern California," Mater Dei's girls' basketball coach Kevin Kiernan said, "we'd certainly be in the conversation."
It was when Mike Brown moved from Cleveland, where he once coached LeBron James and the Cavaliers, to Los Angeles, where he will -- labor situation pending -- coach Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Brown was looking for a school for his two sons, Elijah and Cameron, who play basketball and football. He also was looking for a school for a girl, Nirra Fields, whom he and his wife Carol became guardians.
Fields is a 5-foot-9 guard who has made multiple Canadian national teams, signed to play college ball at UCLA, and is ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz as the No. 11 prospect in the 2012 class. She joins the Monarchs, who are the two-time defending mythical national high-school champions and who graduated Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (Connecticut), the No. 1 player in the 2011 class; Alexyz Vaioletama (USC), who was No. 14, and Karina "Kiki" Alofaituli (USC), who was ranked No. 26. Fields will team with Jordan Adams (USC), the No. 6 prospect in 2012, and keep Mater Dei in the national-championship discussion.
"Just luck," Kiernan said.
The reasons for high school athletic transfers range from luck to finances, recruiting and result-driven wanderlust. Whatever the cause, the movement of elite players is impacting this year's chase for high school's national No. 1 in a big way.
Four of the top seven teams ranked in the preseason FAB 50 compiled by ESPN HoopGurlz have transfers who are elite college prospects, which means they also are extremely good high school players. In addition to Fields at No. 7 at Mater Dei, No. 1 Nazareth Regional (Brooklyn, N.Y.) has Brianna Butler, ranked No. 13 in the 2012 class; No. 3 Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) has Brittany Murray and Dominique Johnson, both three-star prospects and Division I signees, and No. 6 Hoover (Hoover, Ala.) has Marques Webb, who is No. 37 in the 2013 class, and Kara Rawls, who is watchlisted in the same class.
Other highly ranked teams with major transfers include No. 13 McEachern (Powder Springs, Ga.) with Destinie Gibbs, an Ole Miss signee, and No. 17 Buford (Buford, Ga.) with Kristina Nelson, ranked No. 30 in the 2013 class.
Nelson, a 6-3 post, will be reunited with a pair of club teammates -- the No. 2 prospect in her class, Kaela Davis, a Tennessee commit who herself transferred to Buford last year, and eventually another Lady Vol commit, Andraya Carter, who is No. 20 in the 2012 class and recovering from an ACL injury. That reunion makes Buford a national power, but that's not why Nelson transferred from Greater Atlanta Christian School (Norcross, Ga.).
"The No. 1 reason we moved was financial," said Nelson's father, Herb. "Everyone thinks that athletes at a private school are on scholarship, but it's not true."
The Nelsons moved within the Buford, Ga., city limits and now all three of the Nelson children are at Buford, a public school. Before, they logged 100 miles per day between their home in Dekalb County and Greater Atlanta Christian. Now they live just 3½ miles away.
Another reunion of club teammates was far messier at No. 1 Nazareth. Butler came from Philadelphia, Pa., where she attended William Penn Charter. Her mother, Mitzi Mitchell, moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., for personal and business reasons. Butler said she jumped at the opportunity to play high school ball with her club teammates and friends, coached at Nazareth and the Exodus program by Apache Paschall. However, she and two other transfers -- senior Destini Feagin, who came from Mercy (Middletown, Conn.), and junior Sadie Edwards, a watchlisted prospect who left Ben Davis (Indianapolis, Ind.) -- initially were declared ineligible for the upcoming season by the Brooklyn/Queens Girls Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) for insufficient proof of parental addresses.
The trio had their eligibility cleared last week, after further documentation of residency was provided by Nazareth. Parents and coaches had prepared to escalate the fight by retaining lawyers. As it turns out, the weeks required to resolve the matter may have cost Nazareth a berth in the Nike Tournament of Champions, the biggest and most prestigious high school tournament in the country.
A similar fight has emerged in Hattiesburg, Miss., where the Mississippi High School Activities Association ruled Georgia signee Tiaria Griffin ineligible after she transferred from Lawrence County (Monticello, Miss.) to Hattiesburg (Miss.). Proof of residency was the issue there, too. Griffin's mother was granted a court injuction allowing her daughter to play, but after she did, the MHSAA placed Hattiesburg on suspension for the remainder of the season. The school vows to play on; the MHSAA has maintained that the court order has lapsed.
In New York, Paschall was investigated, and later exonerated, last year by the CHSAA after essentially bringing an entire program to Nazareth after his previous school, St. Michael Academy, closed because of financial reasons. He says the same things that rouse suspicion of his program -- mainly ties to club teams and recruitment, mainly of middle-school players -- are present at all reasonably successful schools in the New York area.
"What do you consider recruiting?" Paschall asked, rhetorically. "The whole idea, especially in these financial times, is to convince people to get their children a Catholic education and, to do that, you have to recruit publicly. Forget basketball. You have to sell people who don't want to spend money to want what you have. We (private schools) set up tables at fairs to recruit kids. I happen to have three kids whose families had the means to go to a different, and better, situation, and they did it by the letter of the law.
"The other schools in this area want to point at me and say they don't recruit? When I go to CYO or junior-high school games, I'm always sitting with coaches from all the major schools in the area, and they're sitting there for the same reason I am. Even if they want to call us sharks, hey, all the sharks are swimming together."
However, because of eligibility issues and what can be difficulties integrating new players onto a team, Paschall says transfers can be a "headache" and little, if any, energy is devoted to recruiting them.
Diane Richardson has had more than her share of transfers at Riverdale Baptist -- as many as six in a recent season -- but says she doesn't seek them. Like Mater Dei, her school has the strong attraction of high-standard education and perennial athletic success.
"That's what the parents tell me when they get here," Richardson said.
Like others, she sees a changing landscape, citing the high numbers of athletic transfers at the collegiate level.
On the boys' side, families have played the high school shuffle for years, chasing after prestige and big money. The stakes are dramatically lowered among girls, but the mentality has begun to filter in.
"Parents want more and they're not satisfied," Richardson said. "You're seeing it all over, from top to bottom. You even have kids in middle school making demands. It's difficult to relate to all of that."
Kevin Kiernan counts himself lucky at Mater Dei. During his five years there, he's had two major transfers. Both came for family reasons and with perfect timing.
Last year, the explosive and talented Alofaituli joined a high-powered team and was willing to fill a supporting role. This year, Fields, more of an alpha player, particularly on offense, comes in after much of the high-profile scorers have left. Plus she gets to be with her new family and will receive a high-quality education in an institution with solid support systems in place.
In the end, each will have received exactly what they needed, Kiernan believes.
"If you transfer for basketball reasons only, I think you're setting yourself up for disappointment," he said. "If you're just a gun for hire, I don't think you can be happy."
High school, after all, is about more than just playing basketball.
Chris Hansen contributed to this report.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.