marco polo education Never Too Small to Break the Rules

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Contact Us,Andrea Loring is fighting against the tide. Marching toward the cafeteria, she looks in the eyes of every student still lingering in the hallway. “Hugo, you’re heading the wrong way,” she says to a boy strolling past her. “Eddie, you too,” she calls out to a second boy, a sheepish looking string bean lugging a computer monitor in his arms. “You’re going the wrong way.” She is smiling. She is enjoying herself. Reaching the cafeteria now with a train of students behind her, she throws her arms around two former pupils, both of whom have dropped by to sample the free soul food that will be offered following today’s Black History Month assembly. “Good to see you!” she says to a boy in an orange Fubu baseball jersey. “You’re back at Coral Gables, I hear. How’s it going?” Loring also reaches out for the boy’s friend. “And this one,” she adds, beaming with pride, “he’s moved on to FIU.”

Loring runs the Academy for Community Education (ACE), an alternative high school located in downtown Coral Gables. The school caters to students who have dropped out or who are at risk of dropping out of other public high schools. A self described “family atmosphere” is fostered at ACE through intensive student counseling, “reverse peer pressure,” and a heavy emphasis on academics. “A return to the small school concept” is the ACE motto, and it’s no exaggeration. Only 160 students attend this Miami Dade County public school, leaving plenty of room to stretch out in the cafeteria as Loring takes the podium.

A sign hovering near her head proclaims “Jaguar Pride.” Sports have been an important component at ACE since the school’s founding in 1981. The athletics program runs year round even though the school struggles to field just three sports teams for boys and four for girls. Playing against the tiniest schools in the county (usually small religious academies), ACE owns a decent reputation on the basketball court. In 1995, for instance, the Jaguars boys’ team made it to the championship game of the state’s Class 1A tournament.

No such luck this year. No chance, even. In the few seasons since ACE’s memorable playoff run, the nature of high school basketball in Florida, especially among small schools in Miami Dade, has changed drastically. Whole teams of talented foreign exchange students several nearly seven feet tall have enrolled at five small private schools. All fourteen players on one team hail from outside the United States. Eleven exchange students stock the bench of the defending Class 1A state champions. Prior to the start of this school year, one school recruited and enrolled six players from the Dominican Republic’s junior national team. Thanks to the influx of such phenomenal foreign students, these small schools now stand tall enough to conquer traditional big school powers such as Miami Senior High, whom Northwest Christian Academy defeated this season in a holiday tournament.

Each year in Florida six separate state championships are awarded in basketball. The six divisions, or classes, are designed to allow schools with similar student enrollments to compete against one another. Class 1A consists of schools with the smallest enrollments, Class 6A the largest. At this year’s championships, which will be settled this Saturday, March 11, in Lakeland, the most competitive teams weren’t to be found among the Class 6A powerhouses, but rather in Class 1A and Class 2A, schools with minuscule enrollments.

That is, until Andrea Loring blew the whistle.

A two page complaint she sent January 24 to the Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA), the Gainesville based governing body for high school sports, led to an investigation of Miami’s leading Class 1A and Class 2A basketball programs: Berkshire Academy, Miami Christian Academy, Northwest Christian Academy, Champagnat Catholic, and tiny Gettysburg Academy, a school with an enrollment of only 35 students, a star player from the Dominican Republic, and a first year basketball program that entered the playoffs with a 33 4 record.

The FHSAA promptly documented ineligible students at three of the schools. Three of the Dominican standouts enrolled at Miami Christian Academy had already played four years of high school ball before moving to the United States. A transfer to Northwest Christian had used up his eligibility playing ball in New Hampshire. Eight of the eleven Yugoslavian students playing for Berkshire were determined to have been recruited by the school solely to play sports, a practice explicitly forbidden by FHSAA bylaws. Punishments included season forfeitures, player suspensions, and the removal of teams from the state tournament. The two other schools remain under investigation.

Since filing her complaint, Loring has weathered blistering personal attacks from fans of and administrators at the suspect private schools. The principal of Berkshire Academy, one of two schools Loring identified by name in her complaint (Miami Christian was the other) filed a countercomplaint with the FHSAA,
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alleging that the mediocre team at ACE also is stocked with ineligible players. Loring’s critics have been so vehement in their anger at her that she initially and repeatedly declined to discuss the matter at all.

“I’m a single mother,” she explains now, finally speaking on the record. “For the first time in my life I felt scared for my safety and for that of my daughter.”

The investigation of illegal recruiting is in the hands of Dan Boyd. In a telephone interview from his Gainesville office, the FHSAA’s associate commissioner is trying to explain what bothers him about this relatively new phenomenon. “I think importing foreign students for the primary purpose of playing sports is blatantly unfair and completely contrary to the spirit of amateur athletics and to interscholastic competition,” he says in a deep Southern drawl. “What it amounts to is the school that can out recruit the other ultimately wins the prize, which is the state championship.

“If you look at 99 percent of the schools in Florida, both private and public, the coach might see a gleam of potential in an athlete and work for years with that athlete, hoping the skills will be developed so the athletes can make contributions to a team effort,” he continues. “What I’ve seen in some of these schools in Miami is these coaches are looking for a quick fix. We’re not talking about development, but about going out and finding athletes who’ve already developed and bringing them in. If an entire team is brought in one year, and if every player is playing their first year of sports in Florida, there is not a chance that this is happening by coincidence. It’s being orchestrated behind the scenes.”

Today Boyd’s FHSAA finds itself in a situation similar to that experienced by the International Olympic Committee a couple of decades ago. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the Olympics struggled to remain an amateur competition in the face of growing professionalism in track and field, downhill skiing, and other sports. The Olympic ideal, that athletics are but one component of a well rounded life, eventually was abandoned; the games are now played primarily by elite, well paid professionals.

It would be naive to deny the growing professionalism of high school sports. Street recruiters scour local gymnasiums across America in search of undiscovered talent they can exploit. Colleges compete ferociously for the loyalties of talented players, almost as ferociously as athletic shoe companies, which court players into Adidas and Nike camps in hopes of cashing in should the players ever turn pro. Some ambitious high schools construct basketball factories in hopes of boosting enrollment or securing lucrative endorsement contracts or, occasionally, just to satisfy the human desire to triumph.

If there ever could be a refuge from the business aspect of sports, though, Class 1A and Class 2A basketball would appear to be it. The starting lineups of most teams at this level are filled with the overweight, the short, and the blissfully average amateur athlete. “Your typical Class 1A basketball game is hard to look at,” says Claude Grubair, coach of Class 3A Ransom Everglades in Miami. “Yet now, because of recruiting, some of these schools are considered the elite.”

The chasm between average 1A and 2A teams and exceptional teams is causing strain on both sides. Two seasons ago, after several extraordinary foreign transfers upgraded expectations at Northwest Christian, coach Anthony Pujol spoke of the mediocrity of most 1A teams as something he would have to endure. “Our mission is to win the district and make it through the playoffs and back to state,” he told the Miami Herald. “It’s not to beat up on teams that can’t compete with us. If they are 1A and we must play, then we will do our best to make it a fair game.”

More than a few of those teams Pujol labored not to embarrass would rather not even step on the court, says Jeffrey Peterson, principal of Princeton Academy, another small school located outside Homestead. “We don’t think that fielding a virtual semipro team is good for the overall health of our school,” Peterson remarks. Princeton used to dress a pretty good basketball team, prior to the foreign invasion. “If the FHSAA would have allowed these schools to continue to recruit, we, along with some of the schools who won’t play the recruiting game, would have been faced with dropping out and forming our own end of the year tournaments. We would just kind of assemble our own league.”

The arms race in boys basketball didn’t start in Miami. It actually began in the Panhandle, at Malone, a small school located near the Alabama border. For five years, starting in 1993, Malone won five straight small school state championships. Vanquished teams included ACE, Champagnat, and Northwest Christian. After suffering this dynasty for a few years, local schools realized they needed to beef up their talent if they were ever going to dethrone the champs. By adding top foreigners to their rosters, Miami schools became competitive with Malone, and ultimately superior. In last year’s championship, Northwest Christian defeated Champagnat. Malone had lost in the semifinals.
marco polo education Never Too Small to Break the Rules