Building a Bigger Giant



Highly regarded high school basketball coach Kevin Boyle was lured to Montverde from St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J. Here he strategizes with his players during a game in Montverde’s invitational tournament in late January.

With the hiring of the top prep hoops coach in the country and the construction of a $6.5 million athletic facility, tiny Montverde Academy seeks greater acclaim on—and off—the court. And being the best at high school basketball is how the elite school on the outskirts of Orlando plans to raise its profile, not just in the U.S. but all over the world.
 

An undulating line of cars snakes along the rolling hills on rural County Road 455, slowing traffic, practically forcing people to obey the 35 mph speed limit. The tiny burg of Montverde, a buc-olic community off Lake Apopka’s western bank, doesn’t normally see such a backlog clogging its main thoroughfare, even if that main thoroughfare is only a two-lane road. But then again, people around here don’t normally get to see some of the best high school basketball teams in the country competing in a tournament in their own backyard.

Donnie Wilkie is one of those drivers maneuvering along County Road 455 onto the campus of Montverde Academy, a private school resembling a small college, one with Mediterranean-style stucco buildings, clay-tiled roofs and manicured landscaping. Wilkie has driven from Southwest Florida, where he runs Fort Myers’ annual City of Palms Classic, generally considered the nation’s most prestigious regular-season prep basketball tournament. High schools from coast to coast practically beg Wilkie for an invite into his tourney’s 16-team bracket. Needless to say, Wilkie knows what the best high school basketball in the nation looks like, which is why, during the last weekend in January, he is in a line of cars irresistibly drawn to Montverde Academy, home to the highest nationally ranked basketball team from Florida.

Montverde Academy headmaster Kasey Kesselring makes no apologies for wanting his school to be known as the best in the country for high school basketball.

Inside the school’s gym, Wilkie and other VIPs sit in the Eagle’s Nest, a perch overlooking the court that the school stocks with free liquor, beer, finger foods and snacks. They’re here for the annual Montverde Academy Invitational Tournament, or MAIT, which has brought together eight elite prep programs from New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida. The gym is standing-room only, with scores of college scouts observing. A group of students wave flags representing the different countries that Montverde Academy’s players hail from. Other students work various percussion instruments into a cacophonous though harmonious cadence.

“It’s as much an international soccer match as it is a basketball game,” Wilkie shouts above the din, his eyes wide with amazement even though this isn’t the first time he’s attended the MAIT. “The environment here is just as intense as you’d find at any college. It’s like Duke, but on a smaller scale. I’ve never been in an atmosphere in a high school gym any better than this.” Any better than this.

It is what Montverde Academy is striving for—to be the best. Not just the best in its own invitational tournament, which it won. And not just the best in basketball, either. The not-for-profit private school in Lake County, which celebrates its centennial this year, wants to be the best in all its various sports and academic disciplines. But make no mistake, basketball is the engine pulling this train. For evidence, consider that while Montverde Academy recently completed a $1.5 million fine arts center, replete with state-of-the-art technology and an Apple lab with 24 new iMac computers, it broke ground in February on a $6.5 million athletic center, the centerpiece of which will be a gym primarily for its basketball program. And unlike sports teams at public schools, which travel in old-school yellow buses or large passenger vans, Montverde’s basketball players travel to games in a plush coach bus that the academy owns.

Replacing One Winner With Another

Montverde basketball is premier and pressure-packed. And the school’s aspirations to produce the best high school basketball teams in the nation are probably why, in March 2011, Montverde Academy’s headmaster, Kasey Kesselring, called in the Eagles’ then-head coach, Kevin Sutton, and, according to Sutton, told him the basketball program would be moving on without him. It was stunning news in the prep basketball world, because it was Sutton who built Montverde Academy into a perennial national power. But that wasn’t all. Just a few months later came another thunderclap announcement: Montverde Academy would replace Sutton with Kevin Boyle, whom Kesselring lured from another national power, St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J. How good is Boyle?

“I used to call him the best young coach in America,” Wilkie says. “I can’t call him that now, but only because he isn’t that young anymore.”

Boyle is 48, and his impressive résumé backs Wilkie’s words and Kesselring’s startling coaching switch. Boyle had coached at St. Patrick for 23 stellar seasons. He was the 2011 Naismith Coach of the Year, ESPN’s 2009 National Coach of the Year and USA Today’s 2007 Coach of the Year, becoming only the fourth coach in high school basketball history to win three national coach of the year honors. Boyle is so good, and his reputation so solid, that HBO chronicled his last season at St. Patrick with a documentary titled Prayer For a Perfect Season. Playing mostly against the country’s elite teams, St. Patrick didn’t finish its 2010-11 season perfect. But in Kesselring’s mind, Boyle was still the perfect fit for Montverde Academy.

“Our interest in basketball is great, and I don’t apologize for that,” Kesselring says. “While I don’t want basketball to define us, there’s no question that I consider our athletic programs to be an extension of our marketing program. Sports brings an awareness to our school in ways that a debate team or a science program or a math team don’t. That’s just our society. We’re sports crazy. We recognize that here, and we recognize that for us basketball is our biggest sport.”

It is for now, at least. And maybe for the foreseeable future, too. Who knows? Because arriving simultaneously with the academy’s new athletic center is a football team the school will field for the first time, beginning this fall. A homecoming of sorts is already scheduled for Oct. 26-27, with former Saturday Night Live cast member Darrell Hammond and musical act Blues Traveler headlining the festivities—a one-two entertainment punch many colleges would envy. And there are some college coaches who might envy something else about Montverde Academy—Boyle’s purported salary, which Yahoo! Sports reported to be $130,000 annually, along with a free car and housing.

“Not true,” Kesselring flatly declares, while declining to get into the specifics of Boyle’s compensation. The headmaster confirms that Boyle gets free housing—the school owns eight single-family homes and 16 apartments on its 130 acres—but not a free car. “The salary and compensation issue has been grossly overestimated. That’s bothered me, and that’s bothered Kevin Boyle. This idea that he’s getting compensated an exorbitant amount of money, or that his salary is massively larger than Kevin Sutton’s, is very misleading. Kevin Boyle is not making any more than what Kevin Sutton made here. Anybody who thinks otherwise is incorrect.”

If Boyle takes Montverde basketball to the next level, he will owe a bit of gratitude to Sutton. Hired in 2003 by Kesselring, Sutton built Montverde’s basketball program from the hardwood floor up. In fact, the season before he arrived the Eagles went winless.

“No one in the basketball world knew of Montverde before Coach Sutton got there,” says Rick Staudt, a prep scout, evaluator and writer for SourceHoops.com, and the Florida editor for HoopScoopOnline.com. “And if they did know about the school, they knew that the basketball program wasn’t much. It certainly wasn’t worth the trip out there.”

In Sutton’s eight years as head coach, he produced a 186-33 record, elevating the school to national prominence. In his last season at Montverde, Sutton compiled a 22-4 record that saw the Eagles finish ranked 15th nationally. In 2007, HoopsUSA.com declared the Eagles its national champions, and in 2010 they were the runner-up in the ESPN RISE National High School Invitational tournament, which most in the prep basketball world consider the truest measuring stick for a mythical national championship. Sixty of Sutton’s players went on to play college basketball, many of them at prestigious athletic programs and many others at prestigious academic programs. Two of Sutton’s former players are on Harvard’s basketball team, the alma mater of NBA sensation Jeremy Lin. Another two currently play in the NBA—Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with the Milwaukee Bucks and Solomon Alabi with the Toronto Raptors.

Two months after he and Montverde parted ways, Sutton got an assistant coaching job at George Washington University.

When Staudt heard that Sutton wasn’t going to be back at Montverde Academy, he was beyond surprised. “Oh, surprised isn’t even close to the word I would use,” he says. “Dumbstruck, flabbergasted. Whatever type of adjective you could come up with, none of them would even come close.”

Staudt speculates that Montverde changed coaches because “in spite of all the success Coach Sutton had there . . . the administration felt that for whatever reason the program had plateaued and they needed something else—a fresh change or a new perspective or a new voice.”

Or, perhaps, it needed the guy some consider even better than Sutton; someone who has won a national coach of the year award three of the last five years; someone who drew the attention of HBO’s cameras; someone who since coming to Montverde Academy has already attracted to the campus such college coaching luminaries as Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, Kansas State’s Frank Martin, Clemson’s Brad Brownell, UCF’s Donnie Jones and a host of others. To be fair, though, Boyle inherited a stacked team from Sutton, who routinely attracted interest from the nation’s best college programs, too.

The Goal Is to Be the Best

With Boyle, though, the pressure is not to maintain what Sutton accomplished, but to elevate the program. This means not only competing in, but winning, high school basketball’s Holy Grail—the ESPN RISE NHSI tournament and the mythical national championship that goes with it. Boyle met at least part of that expectation in early March when Montverde, with a 21-3 record and ranked 15th in the nation by ESPNHS, received an invitation to play in the tournament, which was scheduled for later that month. (The tournament was held after presstime for this issue.) 

Spotlights are trained on Montverde players as the team is introduced before the start of
the school’s invitational tournament

“No question, the school wants to be very successful in basketball,” Boyle says, running his hand through rings of curly brown hair. “The expectations are high here. Put it this way, I’m aware of why I was brought to Montverde Academy.”

Boyle is an Irish Catholic,  a former gym rat and the son of a coach. A guy with a pugnacious coaching  style and an intense competitive streak, he’s known for his X’s and O’s acumen and as an outstanding educator of the game. While saying the Montverde job was  an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, Boyle also mentioned growing concerns  about the financial stability of Catholic schools in the Northeast, noting  that many had shuttered in recent years. Sure enough, on Feb. 27,  St.  Patrick High School, New Jersey’s oldest parochial high school at 144 years  old, announced that it would close at the end of this school year.  The  timing couldn’t have been better for Boyle to bring his talents to a school  that regards basketball as highly as St. Patrick did.  

“I understand the pressure,” he says, “and I’m fine with it.”

Almost any coach would be if he had the resources Boyle has at Montverde. Pick any of the elite prep basketball programs from private schools and you’ll find not just an assemblage of talent from around the country, but from around the world. Montverde Academy is no different. It has 17 players on its roster to go along with five assistant coaches. Seven of those players come from the United States, four are from Cameroon, and one each come from Argentina, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Canada, Nigeria and Burkina Faso in West Africa.

The team’s two starting guards—Michael Frazier and Kasey Hill—have committed to the University of Florida. Hill and Frazier are both Central Floridians; Frazier previously played for Tampa Plant High School and Hill at Mount Dora Bible. Another guard, Patricio Garino, from Argentina, is headed to George Washington University, where he’ll reunite with his old coach, Sutton. Landry Nnoko, a 6-foot-10 forward from Cameroon, is headed to Clemson. And on and on it goes. Inside the school’s gym hang two banners listing the names of players from the Sutton era and the schools they took their basketball skills to— schools like Florida State, Michigan State, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Arizona State, Maryland, Wake Forest, Auburn, Boston University and UCF.

The former players’ names are mostly tongue-twisters: Idong Ibok, Vytautas Valiulis, Femi Akinpetide, Tee Jae Persad, Papa Samba Ndao, Ugo Okam and Haukur Palsson. Really, the current basketball roster, which includes a 7-footer and eight other players 6-foot-5 or taller, is a microcosm of the school’s diverse student population of about 900 kids, ranging from Pre-K 3-year-olds through 12th grade. Approximately 600 of those kids are day students, while the other 300 board on campus—the annual cost for the former is $10,170 and $32,500 for the latter. A semicircle driveway coming off County Road 455 sports 46 perfectly positioned flags, each one representing all the various countries that the students pour in from. In fact, 65 percent of Montverde Academy’s student body comes from foreign countries. But whether they are USA born or from overseas, Kesselring is aware that many of those students, and their families, might have first heard about the school because of its basketball program, and he uses that to the school’s advantage.

“There’s no question that our athletic program is an extension of our marketing program,” he says. “It absolutely brings awareness to our school. It’s why I schedule our open house, which is our admissions enrollment drive, on the same day of the MAIT championship game. The basketball game that night brings with it a lot of energy, a real buzz to our campus, and we capitalize on that.”

Kesselring also likes what he calls “the esprit de corps” the basketball team brings to the academy’s campus, a sort of unifying rallying cry for its students. He found, not surprisingly, that once the basketball team started winning and gaining national prominence, the alumni began to reconnect with the school. “There was a definite correlation between the success of the basketball program and the interest of the alumni,” says Kesselring, who adds that most of his time as headmaster is spent fundraising. “When the basketball team started getting national attention, we started hearing from alumni that we hadn’t heard from before. Maybe they saw our name in a newspaper article, or in a magazine. Whatever it was, it raised
our awareness.”

With that awareness, though, comes scrutiny. Though Montverde Academy’s basketball program is registered with the Florida High School Athletic Association, it chooses not to compete in the FHSAA’s state tournament because it doesn’t want to continually answer questions about recruiting players, which member schools are banned from doing. Last decade, the FHSAA fined and sanctioned Montverde’s baseball team for alleged recruiting.

“I recognize that I have the ability to attract students from a wider audience than my counterparts in the public school system,” Kesselring says. “So that word ‘recruit,’ we have to quit using that as if it’s a bad word. I have to recruit students here. If a private school doesn’t recruit students, then our doors are closed. I have the welfare of 150 employees and their families to consider. So I have to recruit, and I don’t apologize for that. That’s why I have a great soccer coach, and we won the boys national championship last year. It’s also why I bring in the best band instructor that I can. I bring in the best academic team that I can. The difference is, there isn’t a governing body over our math team, which wins awards every year, ready to launch an investigation.

“Yes, I’m trying to have the best basketball team. Should I apologize for that? I don’t. I don’t apologize for trying to be the best.”

At the same time, there are also no apologies from players and their families. Patricio Garino, the 6-foot-6 senior guard from Argentina, first heard of Montverde Academy when he met Sutton at a tournament in South America. Intrigued, he looked into the school, liked what he learned about it, and decided to come to America. “This school is amazing,” he says. “I love it. I’m getting to play with and against the greatest players in the world. It’s the best that you can get. On and off the court, it’s been amazing.”

A ‘Win-Win’

Playing in an elite basketball program practically ensures kids like Garino a college scholarship, and perhaps even a pro career. Another of those players is Dakari Johnson, a 6-foot-10 sophomore who followed Boyle from St. Patrick to Montverde Academy. Because of that transfer, he had to sit out the 2011-12 season. Johnson’s mother, Makini Campbell, knows what people say about her, that she’s traipsing her son around the country in pursuit of a bouncing basketball that could lead to an NBA career. But she
doesn’t care.

“There’s a principle I teach my two sons,” says Campbell, herself a former college basketball player, standing 6-foot-5 with striking features—large almond eyes, high cheekbones and multi-hued hair. “I teach them the principle of self-determination, that you can’t let anyone define you or your purpose. So whatever people say about why we’re here at Montverde or what our motives are, that doesn’t concern me at all.”

She also knows that people wonder how a single mother can afford to have two children attend a private academy, or how some might consider it suspicious, rather than fortuitous, that she happened to get a job at Montverde at the same time her eldest son transferred there. She is a guidance counselor and an assistant coach on Montverde’s girls basketball team. Did she get those positions because of her résumé, which includes 10 years of teaching in New York City’s public schools, or because she has a 6-foot-10 son whom ESPNU lists as the fifth-best high school player in the country? Because she is faculty, Campbell is eligible for reduced tuition costs. And while Montverde Academy doesn’t offer scholarships, there is financial aid available through third-party accreditation services that meet FHSAA requirements.
“People are going to think what they want to think,” Campbell reiterates. “We’ve made financial sacrifices, I’ll say that, but I do it because I don’t believe a public school can provide my children what I’m getting here at Montverde. It’s a personal decision I’ve made. So I don’t let what people think bother me.”

Yes, she admits that finding a school where Dakari’s basketball skills could flourish was important. But there were other factors, too.

“I have Dakari, who is 16, but also my 12-year-old son Kamani, and it was essential for me to find a place where we could all be together and all our needs be met,” she says. “My search was very narrow and meticulous and purposeful, so that everybody’s purpose could be fulfilled. Kamani plays the saxophone, and the arts are alive and well here at Montverde. That was important to me. Dakari wants to study computers, and he’s studying TV production here, getting hands-on experience. And, of course, the basketball program. So it’s a win-win for everybody.
It’s such a great environment, with so much to offer.”

It wasn’t always that way at Montverde Academy. The school was gradually declining in enrollment when Kesselring arrived in 1999. If the academy was gaining in anything, it was a reputation for where parents dumped problem teenagers in a last-ditch effort to straighten them out, almost as a form of punishment. Back then, Montverde Academy was only grades 7 through 12, with smoking allowed on campus if a student had parental permission. “That was one of the first things I convinced the board of trustees to get rid of,” Kesselring says.

A lot of problem students were jettisoned during the early years of Kesselring’s regime, and eventually basketball became a focus. That’s when things took off. It was Kesselring who founded the MAIT in 2004, and with Kevin Sutton the two guided the school to the point where during the last weekend in January the one road leading to Montverde Academy is always clogged with cars.

Now Sutton is gone, and Kesselring believes he has someone even better in Kevin Boyle. The hope is that, with Boyle, the school will go from being one of the country’s best prep basketball programs to the best. If that happens, in the world of high school basketball, it no longer will be just one road that leads to Montverde Academy. It will be all roads.

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