By Maine standards it is a mild wintertime day, but a bleak one. The sky looks hard and gray as a stone, and something in the air whispers that another snowfall is coming. Interstate 95 south from Bangor is lined with nothing but thin, bare trees creating a sameness that stretches so far, you begin to wonder if there is anything to be found out here except isolation.
But finally there is tiny Pittsfield, population 4,500, home of one movie theater, one supermarket and one spectacular prep school basketball team, the postgraduate squad at Maine Central Institute. There is a fine line between a postgrad team and a college team, and the Huskies are doing all they can to blur it. They lost for the first time in three seasons last Sunday, ending a streak of 79 straight wins, when they were beaten 89-82 by St. Thomas More prep of Oakdale, Conn. Playing against college junior varsities and other postgraduate teams, the Huskies finished the season with a 29-1 record and won their games by an average margin of 49 points.
Changes in college sports—specifically the academic reform movement in Division I—are what have made MCI a juggernaut. The Huskies are largely a collection of high school graduates who would be on Division I college teams if they had met Proposition 48 requirements for freshman eligibility by scoring a minimum of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Instead they are tucked away in Pittsfield, where their objective, according to 6'10" center Etdrick Bohannon, is to "get that 700, win some basketball games and try not to freeze." In that order.
"The movement to Prop 48 and the tightening of academic standards has started a virtual stampede to the prep schools in New England," says Tom Konchalski, a recruiting expert who concentrates on the Northeast. "The preps are nothing new, but the emphasis on them is getting greater because a lot of schools will do anything they can to avoid having a Prop 48 player."
Indeed, college coaches are feeling pressure from their administrations—particularly from university presidents, who are at the forefront of academic reforms—not to recruit players who fall short of the academic requirements of NCAA article 14, the legislation that grew out of Proposition 48. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many recruiters now won't offer scholarships to players who don't make the grade, at least in part because most of them lose a year of eligibility. So a year at a prep school bringing up those SAT scores can make life easier for players and colleges.
Take the case of Johnny Rhodes, the Huskies' best player, a 6'4" guard and one of those athletes who glide through a game so smoothly that it sometimes seems they're going half speed. He's also a typical example of how players wind up at MCI. At Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., last season, Rhodes was the Metro Player of the Year and made a verbal commitment to Maryland, but the golden 700 on the SAT eluded him.
Rhodes could have attended junior college for two years and sacrificed half his Division I eligibility. But there was another option: The Maryland coaching staff recommended Rhodes and MCI to each other. At MCI, Rhodes could spend a year getting his boards up to 700, receive Division I-caliber coaching and be free to play for the Terrapins next season without the stigma of having been a Prop 48 and with his four years of eligibility intact.
"I cried the first day I got here," says Rhodes. "But after a while I began to get used to it, and I realized it was the best thing for me. In high school I was one of those guys who never really got serious about my schoolwork. But once you get here, they make you realize that you have to put up or shut up. They only ask one thing—that you take studying as seriously as you take basketball."
Even more players may go the postgrad route when the NCAA's tougher new freshman eligibility standards are instituted. Beginning in 1995, a sliding scale will go into effect, with players who have a 2.0 grade point average needing a 900 on the SAT, 2.25 GPA students needing an 800, and 2.5 GPA students needing a 700.
"Is a kid who can barely manage a 700 on the SAT going to be getting the B's and C's he needs to have a 2.5 GPA?" asks Konchalski. "Players are already heading to prep schools in greater numbers than they ever have before, and these new rules are going to be even better for business at schools like MCI."