HARGRAVE MILITARY ACADEMY, CHATHAM, VA.
Vidal Hazelton wasn't sure he was ready for this. It was the summer of 2005, and a couple of months earlier, the 6'3", 200-pound native of Staten Island, N.Y., had wowed a group of recruiters at a high school combine in New Jersey. Suddenly he went from unknown to a top-five receiving prospect. Now college football was a serious option. Vidal's father, Dexter, an Army sergeant, worried that the not-exactly-stiff competition his 18-year-old son faced at Moore Catholic High School would hurt him in college. He also feared that Vidal wouldn't make the grade academically. Dexter told his boy it was time for a change, then shipped him off to the 'Grave for his senior year.
For most of its 97 years, Hargrave was a middling football school. But in the early 1990s, after the NCAA raised eligibility standards for incoming freshman athletes, places like Hargrave and Virginia's Fork Union Military Academy (Eddie George's alma mater) became popular football factories. Often, top-notch seniors are recommended to these schools by their college suitors. One postgraduate year of getting grades up gives players four years of NCAA eligibility. "Now we have 20 or so kids playing in the ACC and 20 or so kids in the SEC," says Hargrave's coach, Robert Prunty. "I think we recruit harder than colleges do."
Two dozen of the school's 53 players have been placed at Hargrave by Division I schools, including defensive end Justin Mincey (committed to Florida State) and defensive tackle Jerrell Powe (Ole Miss). And since talent follows talent, another two dozen D1 prospects transferred as underclassmen. That, more than anything, is why a kid from Staten Island left his friends and family for small-town Virginia. "Every one of our DBs is going D1, so I knew that would make me get better," says Hazelton, who has committed to USC. "Working against that competition, how can you not?"
It doesn't hurt that Hargrave's schedule also includes a slew of JV college teams. But even those games aren't as competitive as practices can be. Nearly 300 college coaches trekked through a December snowstorm to attend the academy's combine workouts. One ACC coach walked away saying, "There are 10 kids out there who you could see becoming NFL firstrounders. They have better defensive linemen than a lot of Division I schools."
Which is exactly what next year's crop of Hargrave recruits wants to hear.
STRATTON MOUNTAIN SCHOOL, STRATTON, VT.
SPECIALTY Skiing and snowboarding
FAMOUS ALUMNI Snowboarders Lindsey Jacobellis, Ross Powers, Alexis Waite, Michael Goldschmidt; 2005 NCAA giant slalom champ Greg Hardy
Location, location, location. The right mountain is as essential to an aspiring snowboarder or skier as comfortable boots or a freshly waxed board. So when a rising star has outgrown his hometown slope, he has to relocate. "At my mountain, you could barely call what I practiced on a halfpipe," says Danny Davis, a 17-year-old from Highland, Mich., who transferred 700 miles east to Vermont after a breakout sophomore season in 2004. Seven months later, Davis (now a senior) was one of four Stratton Mountain students signed by the U.S. Snowboard team.
Altogether, SMS has sent 28 skiers and snowboarders to the Olympics. And with students from the United States to Australia to the Czech Republic enrolled, the school has earned a worldwide rep for churning out champs. The 78,000-square-foot campus-including an 8,000-square-foot gym and 4,000-square-foot weight room-sits less than a mile from the base of Stratton Mountain, which hosts a world-class SuperPipe and five terrain parks. It's 45 acres of Shangri-la for the snow set. SMS athletes spend up to four hours each day training under the tutelage of 20 coaches, including former World Cup and Olympic head men and women.
The program began with 13 students in 1972, when some local parents wanted to let their ski-crazy kids train as much as possible without skipping schoolwork. The notion of adolescent sports factories was still novel, but soon SMS was recruiting top coaches and attracting kids from all over the country. By keeping the teacher/coach-to-student/athlete ratio small-even today, it's just 6:1-the school has seen performance in and out of the classroom spike. Stratton boasts a 100% graduation rate, and 90% of this year's 22-student senior class will head straight to college. About 10% of SMS skiers and snowboarders annually defer their freshman year to compete.
While alpine skiers still dominate the student body-99 of 130 students are two-plankers-the 12-year-old snowboard program is creating the most buzz. Ross Powers, who won gold in Salt Lake City, is a Stratton alum. And 2003 grad Lindsey Jacobellis is the favorite in snowboard cross going into Torino.
But champions aren't made cheap. A year at the school costs $31,800 for boarding students and $21,750 for commuters. The upside, says SMS admissions director Todd Ormiston: "The best kids now were not necessarily the best kids when they got here."
That's worth the price of admission.
SOUTH KENT SCHOOL, SOUTH KENT, CONN.
FAMOUS ALUMNI Dorell Wright (Heat), Andray Blatche (Wizards)
The charge seemed impossible: turn a school with 142 students, an 80-year history of losing and a gymnasium that seats 250 max into a local hoops kingpin. And do it pronto.
Turns out those expectations were too low for Raphael Chillious. Since taking over at South Kent in 2003, after two seasons at West Nottingham Academy in Colora, Md., Chillious has made the Cardinal not only a New England power, but a national one, too. Each fall, more than 200 college coaches travel through the Litchfield Hills of northwest Connecticut in search of talent, and Chillious is on speed-dial status with several NBA scouts. "I was tired of South Kent being the doormat in every sport," says headmaster Andrew Vadnais, who hired Chillious on the recommendation of UConn's Jim Calhoun. "I just wanted to be competitive, but I never envisioned this."
Chillious, who's just 33, worked this wonder by being well-connected. A former guard at Lafayette College, he played professionally in Italy and Spain before beginning his coaching career at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. All that time outside the United States gave him a fat international phone book, which he's used to fill South Kent's phat roster. Seven of his 16 players this season are foreignborn, with home bases in Austria, England, Nigeria, Senegal, Serbia and South Korea.
Chillious is big on skills. When Calhoun recruited current Huskies big man Josh Boone out of West Nottingham, the Hall of Fame coach said it would be a year before Boone cracked the starting lineup. Chillious boldly told Calhoun his star pupil would start as a freshman-and he was right. Word began to spread that Chillious players are fundamentally sound shooters, dribblers, passers and defenders. That made him popular with college coaches. "I never want a coach to tell me that one of my kids isn't skilled," Chillious says. "If he's not big enough or athletic enough, that's one thing. But when he leaves here, he's going to have a skills package."
When Chillious joined South Kent, he already had such a good rep that ballers throughout the country-scratch that, throughout the world-soon began knocking on the prep school's door. This year's studs are 6'6" swingman Gilbert Brown of Harrisburg, Pa., and 6'6" forward Rob Thomas of Harlem, both true seniors. Brown (27 ppg) has signed with Pitt and Thomas (25 ppg) will likely choose among Pitt, Arizona, Virginia Tech and St. John's. Next year, keep an eye out for power forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, a 6'9" junior from London. Says Chillious, "I think we have about five future pros at our school."
And one very pleased headmaster.
EAST COBB BASEBALL, INC., MARIETTA, GA.
SPECIALTY America's pastime
FAMOUS ALUMNI Michael Barrett (Cubs), Kris Benson (Orioles), Adam Everett (Astros), Corey Patterson (Orioles)
Years before Kevin Costner heard that voice saying, "If you build it, he will come," Guerry Baldwin was saying the same thing to everyone in the greater Atlanta area. "I felt there were a lot of good players down here who were going unnoticed by the college coaches and pro scouts," Baldwin says. "And there had to be a way to get them more exposure."
The year was 1985, and Baldwin, a former local high school coach and player, decided to heed his inner Shoeless Joe. Just 20 miles north of Turner Field, he built a 30-acre complex that includes eight manicured diamonds, indoor and outdoor batting cages, a weight room and video equipment. From March through November, East Cobb buzzes with games. But even during the December-to-February down period, you'll hear the sound of batting practice.
"They play a lot of games, and they welcome the best competition," says Braves scouting director Roy Clark. "They'll host a tournament, and a scout or college coach can stay on-site all day long, knowing he's going to see some high-quality players."
While places like Hargrave, Stratton Mountain and South Kent mix school and sports, East Cobb has only one aim: to attract and develop the best baseball talent in the country. As Clark says, "I've seen families relocate just so their sons could be a part of the East Cobb program."
Each year, that program fields 55 to 60 teams, with players ranging in age from 8 to 18. Club dues are $175 annually, but with tournament entry fees, the tab for a teenage player runs to four digits. Most say that's a small price to pay considering the potential upside. The East Cobb Yankees, made up of 17- and 18-year-olds, are the program's pinnacle ball club. Last year, the team won the Connie Mack World Series, the fall classic of the American Amateur Baseball Congress. Ten former enrollees have become first-round major league draft picks, including Orioles pitcher Kris Benson and Marlins outfielder Jeremy Hermida. There could be another one this spring in first baseman Cody Johnson. At the very least, earning a spot on the East Cobb Yankees practically assures you a shot at playing Division I college baseball.
"Really, that's all I wanted to do for these local kids," Baldwin says. "The success we've had in the draft has just been a bonus."
The kind that keeps kids-and scouts-flocking to East Cobb's fields.