Harvard Basketball Gets Winning Way From New England Prep School
March 11, 2014
By John Lauerman
In 2012, Zena Edosomwan came up 30 points short of fulfilling his dream to play basketball for Harvard University.
The points weren't lacking on the court; the two-time McDonald's All-American nominee from Los Angeles was Harvard's most touted recruit ever. He needed the points on his SAT score to be admitted to Harvard under Ivy League guidelines for athletes, he said in an interview.
"I only needed to get three more questions right, I think," said Edosomwan, a six-foot, nine-inch, 245-pound forward. "I took it four or five times, maybe more."
Encouraged by a Harvard assistant coach, Edosomwan enrolled for a post-graduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts. After boosting his grades there, Edosomwan entered Harvard and now plays as a freshman on its Ivy League-leading team.
Harvard owes much of its newfound basketball success, highlighted by four straight league titles and a first-round victory in last year's NCAA tournament, to Northfield Mount Hermon, a 135-year-old boarding school whose alumni include actress Laura Linney and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Four ex-Hoggers -- the Northfield Mount Hermon nickname -- play for the current Harvard squad, including Edosomwan and co-captain Laurent Rivard.
Northfield Mount Hermon is "a combination school that's going to enhance your academic skills and get excellence in athletics," said Jim Calhoun, who retired as head coach of the University of Connecticut basketball team in 2012 after having won three National College Athletic Association championships in 40 years of college coaching. "There aren't many of them."
The proportion of top college basketball recruits who attended more than one high school almost doubled to 52 percent in 2013 from 28 percent in 2007, according to a Sports Illustrated study. Four players on the University of Michigan's team, this year's Big Ten regular-season champions, enrolled from New England prep schools, including Northfield Mount Hermon. Carmelo Anthony, now a New York Knicks star, attended a Virginia prep school for a year to raise his grades and test scores and become academically eligible to play for Syracuse University, which he led to the NCAA championship in 2003.
Harvard's increasing prominence in basketball has at times raised concerns about balancing academics and athletics. In the 2012-2013 season, the basketball team lost at least two top players to a cheating scandal, and the academic progress of its players as measured by the NCAA declined.
"Harvard is becoming like other schools," said Steven Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington who helps students gain admission to elite colleges and frequently works with student athletes. "It's using its market position to attract not only the best academic students, but the best athletes as well."
Like Harvard, Northfield Mount Hermon wasn't always a hoops powerhouse. Its Ivy League prominence has coincided with the school's rebound from financial struggles in the early 2000s that spurred it to sell one of its two campuses and reduce enrollment by about 40 percent. Last year -- led by Edosomwan -- the school team won the National Prep Championship for the first time. This year, it was voted the best prep basketball program in New England by readers of the New England Hoop News website.
Not just a pipeline to Harvard, Northfield Mount Hermon has sent 20 players to Ivy League teams in the past seven years. One current Hogger, Sem Kroon, has committed to play for Yale next year, and the Ivies are courting four others, Carroll said.
With 11 graduates in the Ivy League this year, Northfield Mount Hermon has become the No. 1 feeder for the eight-school conference, said Tom Konchalski, who assesses high school prospects in a newsletter for college coaches.
The school has also sown players throughout Division 1 basketball. Alumni Spike Albrecht of the University of Michigan and Mike Marra of the University of Louisville faced off in the 2013 National Collegiate Athletics Association Championship game that Louisville won, 82-76.
Ninety miles west of Boston, a wooded lane leads to Northfield Mount Hermon's placid, manicured campus, with the stone, turreted Memorial Chapel at the center. There's a farm where students grow fruit and vegetables, milk cows, and make apple cider and maple syrup. A speed limit of 19 miles per hour is prominently posted.
"I didn't know places like it existed, where you can look up at night and see the stars," said Matthew Brown, a Harvard junior guard from Barrington, Rhode Island, who spent three years as a Hogger. "I still like to go back there for the quiet and tranquility."
Board members began to feel that the cost of running both campuses -- including two libraries, two sets of dorms and classrooms, and running regular shuttle buses 4.2 miles over a bridge -- weakened the school's finances, said former trustee Don Dolben. Some faculty also complained that the school struggled to attract enough high-quality students, he said.
Hoping to raise as much as $20 million, the board voted in 2004 to close the Northfield campus, said Dolben, who is chairman and founder of Dolben Co., a Woburn, Massachusetts-based real estate development company. Instead, the 2009 sale raised $100,000.
$121 Million Endowment
A shooting guard from Brooklyn, Carroll played a post-graduate year for the Hoggers before starring at Assumption College in Worcester. He then interned and worked as a broker for five years at Morgan Stanley before returning to Northfield Mount Hermon.
Carroll, who at 43 years old has a ruddy complexion and wiry gray hair, boosts his team's profile with Twitter and Facebook posts about its accomplishments. He prefers to recruit prospects who are tall and versatile enough to play several positions but need to gain strength before going on to college ball.
He throws in unusual drills. He'll tell players to run to the three-point line, and pass the ball between their legs and then heave up a long-range shot. Or he'll challenge one player to take the ball and dunk over two defenders, said Evan Cummins, a Harvard sophomore forward who came from Northfield Mount Hermon.
"We want them to practice shots that are more difficult than they might take in a game," Carroll said. "It makes a regular shot feel easier."
Carroll began pursuing his vision for the program when he took over as coach in 2007. His predecessor, Bill Batty -- who coached Carroll at Northfield Mount Hermon -- had already sent many players to Division 1 programs and academically challenging Division 3 schools. Still, spots on Ivy teams had been infrequent.
At Harvard, parents with annual incomes of $180,000 or less pay no more than 10 percent of their incomes for education, and 20 percent of undergraduates' families pay nothing, according to the college website.
"The timing was right for them to become more competitive in basketball," Carroll said. "It seemed like they were wrapping their minds around the idea of having success without sacrificing academically and socially."
The Hoggers get to know Ivy League campuses because they face their junior varsity teams regularly. On a Saturday afternoon in December, Carroll's team dispatched a rag-tag Harvard JV team, 79-52.
Jeremy Lin, a 2010 graduate, became Harvard's first NBA player in more than half a century, and now averages almost 13 points a game for the Houston Rockets. Despite some injuries, this year's Crimson squad finished the regular season 26-4.
Harvard started a $6.5 billion capital campaign in September, in part to upgrade from 2,050-capacity Lavietes Pavilion -- at 88 years the second-oldest basketball building in Division -- to a new 3,000-seat arena.
Another sign that Harvard basketball has gone big-time was its involvement in the 2012 cheating scandal that resulted in one-year suspensions and withdrawals for dozens of students, including then basketball co-captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey. They weren't available to comment on this story.
The cheating episode was primarily the result of a poorly run class, in which dozens of students didn't understand the limits on collaborative work, rather than athletes taking academic shortcuts, said Lewis, the former dean.
Edosomwan is flourishing on and off the court at Harvard even though, as a top basketball prospect, he wasn't expected to go Ivy. In his senior year at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, California, he got scholarship offers from 39 Division 1 schools, including the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California, both perennially top-ranked teams.
"I didn't even know what state it was in," he said.
Edosomwan visited Cambridge with his mother, who owns a hair salon in Los Angeles, and his stepfather, a used-car salesman. He was smitten by the 3 1/2-centuries-old campus. In 2012, he became the first-ever high school basketball player in sports news service Scout.com's top 100 to commit to an Ivy League school.
"Zena might be the trailblazer that gets more of the high-profile guys to take a look at the Ivy League," said Dinos Trigonis, who coached him on an Amateur Athletic Union team in Los Angeles.
Amaker declined to comment directly on Northfield Mount Hermon's basketball program, citing NCAA rules.
Athletes at Ivy League schools must meet or exceed a benchmark, called the academic index, which combines grades with standardized test scores. Edosomwan's high school grades suffered because he took difficult courses such as Chinese, said Greg Hilliard, Harvard-Westlake's basketball coach.
He now has a 3.0, or B average, at Harvard. While he's only averaging 2.9 points a game, his playing time has increased, and he led Harvard with 12 points in a Feb. 7 victory over Brown.
"He had a terrific first semester academically," Amaker said in an interview. "And he's adjusted to what we're doing on the court also."
Northfield Mount Hermon made his Harvard dream come true, Edosomwan said. "I failed at the beginning, but going from setback to comeback is a great thing."