Blocked shot?: WVSSAC against college prep teams as members - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Blocked shot?: WVSSAC against college prep teams becoming members

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JIM ROSS / The State Journal JIM ROSS / The State Journal

Basketball is a game with two halves.

In this game, Huntington Prep scored a dominant win in the first half toward its goal, one that would give it the recognition it seeks from the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission.

The West Virginia Senate passed SB 540 Feb. 19. The bill would allow limited WVSSAC membership for college prep teams.

But the second half of this match-up is another story.

The House of Delegates now is mulling over the proposal.

And Huntington Prep head coach Rob Fulford is concerned.

The bill was introduced in the House Feb. 20 and sent to the House Education Committee for members there to work on it.

It seems as though the WVSSAC may have the second-half momentum.

"I'm not sure about it," Fulford admitted Feb. 25. "The WVSSAC is really pushing for it not to go through. It's tough to overcome. I'd like an opportunity to let (House of Delegates members) know what we're all about."

Fulford said he assumed a bill that easily passed the Senate would get a fair shot on the floor of the House. "There's enough support for us among the delegates that I believe that it will pass," he said.

Playing ball

Huntington Prep has become nationally recognized as one of the premier high school basketball programs in the United States. It is comprised of elite student-athletes recruited from all over the nation, and has also drawn from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Canada and Spain. Its players must attend classes at St. Joseph Central Catholic High School in Huntington. The team exists to give elite players an opportunity to compete at a much higher level than a typical high school program can afford by playing a schedule against other elite programs.

Yet the team runs into roadblocks for competing on a national stage, because of the lack of recognition by the WVSSAC, Fulford said.

If the propose bill becomes law, it would include college prep sports programs like Huntington Prep as a limited member of the WVSSAC, with some built-in competition restrictions. It would prohibit the prep teams from playing in sectional, regional and state tournaments against full WVSSAC members.

It also would mandate that prep teams be comprised of members from the same school and must not have members who are fifth-year seniors or post-high school graduates.

Fulford made a trip to the State Capitol Feb. 25. He plans to return March 3, in the final days of the 2014 regular legislative session.

"I'm not sure I knew what to expect," he said about his trip to Charleston. "I was hoping to meet up with the chair of the Education Committee and just make sure that she had all of the information that she needed for her committee to make an adequate representation of the bill."
Fulford said he didn't get a lot of time to talk with Education Committee chairman Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour.

"It was more of an introduction," he said. "I know that she met with the WVSSAC (on Feb. 24) and heard some negative things about the bill.

"I'll go back and try to see how far along we are. All we can do is present the positives that we bring and what the bill would allow us to bring to West Virginia. Other than that, we'll just let the process run its course."

Playing defense

Gary Ray, executive director of the WVSSAC, is not in favor of college prep sports programs being a part of WVSSAC membership.

"I'm opposed to the bill," Ray said. "The reason is that the WVSSAC is an education-based organization. We are responsible to West Virginia's public and private high schools and middle schools."

Ray said the bill involves college prep teams, and Huntington Prep is not a school.

"It's not recognized by any particular organization — it's an outside team, like a travel team," Ray said. "For us to recognize a team outside of a school would not be appropriate for us."

Ray said Huntington Prep approached the WVSSAC a few years ago about becoming recognized, but Ray said it's not up to him individually.

"Gary Ray works for the WVSSAC; He is not the WVSSAC," Ray said. "When I have a question, it goes before our board of directors. They said that they were not going to recognize an outside team. It's not a school-based team, no matter how you want to identify them.

"The school-based team at St. Joe is their boy's team and their girl's team in basketball. When our board said that it wasn't going to recognize (Huntington Prep), I said ‘OK, that's it.'"

Ray said he has looked at the bill, but he's not exactly sure what its details would do, and it could open the door to other situations in the future.

"When you start working on things, people want certain things," he said. "Some things that we would put in a rule, people are opposed to. All of our rules have to be approved by the State Board of Education. They have no control over outside entities.

"I can't wrap my head around what (Huntington Prep) is wanting to do — this is about a particular team right now. But the bill doesn't say Huntington Prep, it says college prep. That's pretty far-reaching."

Getting schooled

Huntington Prep student-athletes attend classes at St. Joseph Central Catholic High School, a private school in Huntington. St. Joseph Central is a member of the WVSSAC, and has boys and girls participating in basketball and 13 other WVSSAC-sanctioned sports in Class A.

"(Huntington Prep) is a team that is outside of that school, even though they attend (St. Joseph High School)," Ray said. "They don't play for that school."

Fulford said his student athletes get a great education at St. Joe's.

"It's one of the best schools in West Virginia," Fulford said. "I work at the school and I'm there all day. It's been a great setup because they get the best of both worlds."

And even Huntington Mayor Steve Williams finds himself clearing up misconceptions about the team and the school.

"People that think that Huntington Prep is just a basketball factory are mistaken," Williams said. "They are high school students at St. Joseph High School. They're active there in every sense of the word, and classmates just like at any other school in the state.

"I assure you that (St. Joseph principal Bill) Archer is not putting up with any nonsense there. I had him at Huntington High when I was in school."

Williams said the athletes are an asset to the community.

"They're great ambassadors for West Virginia," he said.

Archer has a longstanding relationship with the WVSSAC. In fact, he has served the WVSSAC as its director of the state wrestling tournament, which takes place in Huntington, for several years.

"It's not a St. Joe issue," Ray said. "This has nothing to do with Mr. Archer and what he is doing there."

Scouting report

Does Ray fear that Pandora's box would suddenly fly open if such a law is passed?

"Yes, for us to promulgate a rule that recognize a college prep team and not knowing where it would go …," Ray said. "I even called the NCAA.

"I asked how someone gives recognition to a college prep team. They just call themselves that, that's what I was told (by the NCAA). I guess anybody can have a prep team, I don't know."

Ray said he called a few different entities to try to find more information about how a team gains the designation of "college prep," but said he hasn't yet gotten a straight answer.

"For years, the National Federation of State High School Associations, our national organization, has discussed if we should look towards having national championship games because Nike is doing it and ESPN is doing it and making big money off the kids," Ray said. "We've discussed it and discussed it about three years ago and all 50 states and the District of Columbia all adamantly said, ‘No, we're not interested in national championships. We're about individual state championships and local participation.' So even our parent organization's mission statement and philosophy is not about it."

Ray said he will continue to monitor the situation, but his organization will do what's best for its member schools.

"Any rule that we would promulgate would have to go before the nine sitting members of the state board of education for their approval as well," he said.

Economic slam dunk

There are plenty of potential economic dollars to be realized with a victory at the State Capitol for Huntington Prep.

A boost to the state's tourism economy might be realized if Huntington Prep can bring in national competitors that may also bring in TV cameras from ESPN, Fulford said.

"We've done a really good thing for Huntington," he added. "We've given West Virginia and Huntington a lot of positive national and statewide exposure.

"We need recognized (by the WVSSAC). If your own state association doesn't recognize you, it makes it pretty easy for other state associations to not allow their teams to play you."

Fulford said the team has run into that hurdle with some major tournaments, because there are some states that won't allow their teams to play non-recognized members.

"We run into problems with scheduling," he said. "So far, to date, it's probably cost us six or seven ESPN games. That's just positive, national exposure for West Virginia. I don't see that as being a bad thing."

Fulford insists that the recognition from the WVSSAC is all that Huntington Prep is asking. Nothing else would change.

"We're not asking to play in the (West Virginia) state tournament," he said. "We're not asking to be in the state rankings. It's very simple — if they just recognize us, they'll probably never hear from us again."

Williams, also a former member of the House of Delegates from 1987-94, said he knows how the legislative process works.

"I'm encouraging legislators because it promotes West Virginia," he said. "This is an important bill. These are stellar student-athletes. It's a positive thing."

But, Williams said, getting the bill passed won't be a slam dunk.

"We have some work to do," Williams added. "Until the votes are counted, you can't think that you have it in the bag, although we have some area representation in the (House) Education Committee."

The issue may come down to the final hours of the legislative session, which ends March 8, or the final buzzer in basketball terms.

"It's frustrating for our kids because they deserve to be treated fairly," Fulford said "They deserve to be recognized by the state that we're in. It's long past due.

"I wish the WVSSAC felt better about us than they do. Hopefully the government sees that; then we'll be in good shape."