Transfers are cottage industry in high school

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Transfers are cottage industry in high school

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With liberal transfer rules and a desire to play for teams that can compete for championships and provide national exposure for college scholarships and even the NBA, it has become a common practice for high school athletes to market themselves to the most high-profile programs in the country.

Some of the most celebrated transfers in Illinois history were Kevin Garnett, Mark Aguirre, Marcus Liberty, Nick Anderson, Quentin Richardson, Jereme Richmond, Michael Hermon, Bill Small, Shaun Livingston, Fred Riddle and Bumpy Nixon, all basketball players.

In the last few years, however, transferring has become a cottage industry. De La Salle's basketball team lost Gavin Schilling to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, and Alex Foster to Seton Academy. Kyle Davis went from Hyde Park to Morgan Park. Tommy Hamilton left Whitney Young for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

In the last two years, Wheaton Warrenville South landed two highly regarded quarterbacks, one from Ottawa, Illinois, and the other from Springdale, Arkansas. This season, a 1,700-yard running back moved from Bartlett to St. Francis in Wheaton.

In Chicago, handlers of a promising and widely recruited offensive lineman showed up at a few high schools and demanded: "If you guarantee that he will play left offensive tackle, he'll come here. If not, he'll go somewhere else."

This year, the most celebrated transfer could be 6-foot-5 junior L.J. Peak, who left Gaffney, South Carolina, and enrolled at Whitney Young. He is rated among the top 50 players in the country in his class by some evaluators. At Whitney Young, he will join two other highly rated players, 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor and 6-foot-9 Paul White.

"Peak is an explosive scorer who can create, drive with either hand, finish with major hops and is a surprising passer off the dribble," said veteran recruiting analyst Van Coleman. "He is a streaky shooter from around the arc but when he's on, he can be scary, like he was at Beach Ball last winter when he scored 40 points on 13-of-18 shooting, including five threes."

Coleman said Peak, who is being recruited by South Carolina and Clemson, will have to convert his game to the more physical style that is played in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago Public League. "If he does, he will be a huge addition to Windy City basketball. He probably will start the year rated around No. 40 in the class of 2014."

In other moves, A.J. Riley went from Peoria Manual to LaLumiere Academy in Indiana to Peoria Notre Dame, 6-foot-7 junior Don Johnson went from Niles Notre Dame to St. Joseph and 6-foot-5 senior Paris McCullum went from St. Patrick to Proviso East.

Nationally recognized recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons of Lenoir, North Carolina, who has been evaluating high school basketball players since the 1970s, said the hardest aspect of his job is to keep track of where top-rated kids are going from year to year.

"Transfers and reclassifications are a major dilemma," Gibbons said. "Kids are being jerked around. Always stay with the horses that brung you, I always say. If you have reached a level of success at a high school with a coach and your teammates, you don't have to go to a different school to get a scholarship.

"Parents are worst of all. They are like Little League parents. They have illusions fed by summer coaches that their sons will make them millionaires overnight with a pro contract and shoe contract. The hoop dream of today is to be recruited by Kentucky and enhance your chances of being a big-time prospect and become an NBA player after one year of college."

Coleman has observed the growth of transfers over the last decade. Every year, based on academics, a significant number of athletes leave high school to enroll at prep schools, some of which are legitimate while some aren't.

No matter, the aim of the prep school is to get kids qualified. There were 580 transfers in the NBAA last year.

"The whole system has changed to an impersonal look at things. Now it is the culture of recruiting," Coleman said. "Kids look at their own lives and what older kids are doing. Every time a kid is unhappy, someone is trying to help him go somewhere else.

"I understand if a kid has a desire to play for a state championship if his parents are willing to move. But I think we have gotten to a mentality that if it ain't right for me here, I can go somewhere else. Now if you don't promote a kid, he goes to another school where he thinks he can play.
It's the 'me' society of the 1960s. Kids have so many options."

And about this story? Does it get any more hypocritical than this? When athletes jump from one school to another to another, when does it become obvious that it isn't for academic reasons and somebody in authority steps in and says "enough is enough" and declares the athlete ineligible to participate in sports?

After being declared academically ineligible after his junior year at Peoria Manual, A.J. Riley, one of the state's leading basketball players in the class of 2013, transferred to La Lumiere Academy in LaPorte, Indiana.

One report said Riley was "homesick" but another report said Riley was flunking out of La Lumiere and withdrew before the school ordered him to pack his bags. Now Riley has returned to Peoria and reportedly will enroll at Peoria Notre Dame.

Let's get this straight:

Riley's AAU coach said the 6-foot-2 guard, who has received more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers, including Bradley, Illinois State, Creighton and Drake, was leaving Peoria Manual because he needed to escape Peoria's academically inept public school system. So now he is coming back because he has no other options?

And if Riley couldn't cut it at Peoria Manual, what makes him think he can achieve passing grades and meet NCAA academic standards at a parochial school such as Peoria Notre Dame?

"Transfers are out of control, largely with the involvement of prep schools," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "The problem is compounded because there is no way of regulating it. Who is the authority to step in? Who is the governing body? It has become enough of a national issue that the NCAA or the National High School Federation must step in.

"It has reached epidemic proportions because so many talented players have delusions of grandeur. They think prep schools are the fastest way of achieving success in college and moving to the NBA. It is hard to turn down those incentives."

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”