The Prized Recruits of Prep School Sports

Letters, texts and phone calls. Promises of championships. Offers of big-money scholarships. Another day in the college sports recruiting wars? No, it’s what local kids as young as 10 are being deluged with—from some of Philadelphia’s most elite private high schools

WHEN GIL BROOKS took over as head football coach at St. Joseph’s Prep in 1992, the school’s brand lacked the cachet it has today. Enrollment was down to about 140 per class — from more than 200 in the ’70s, according to Brooks — and the once-proud football team at the all-boys school had become a patsy in the Catholic League. (The Hawks were 41-85-1 from 1980 to 1991.) Armed with an administrative mandate to sell the school, which is located on Girard Avenue, to anybody he encountered, Brooks began to attract players from all over the region, including New Jersey. The results were astounding. The Prep captured the Catholic League title in 1997, and from 1999 to 2008 won 55 straight league games.

“As we went along, it became an easier process,” says Brooks, who left the school after the 2009 season and spent 2010 as an assistant at Camden Catholic. “People wanted to be at the Prep.”

The football team’s success coincided with a boost in enrollment. Today, there are about 250 boys in each grade, and 600 prospects take the school’s entrance exam each year. Meanwhile, alumni donations have also shot up. “Anything positive for the school helps alumni feel connected and engaged,” says the school’s director of marketing and communications, Bill Avington.

While the Prep’s growth has aligned with its football success, at Bryn Athyn’s Academy of the New Church, which was founded in 1876 and sits on 130-plus acres off Huntingdon Pike, it’s the enriched basketball program that has recently generated attention for the school. Over the past five years or so, the Lions, who play in the Friends Schools League, have progressed from hardwood punching bags to a team that, this past season, knocked off the nation’s top-ranked squad (Findlay Prep) and boasted three players who have committed to play for Big East powers. “I’m sure [the team] helps the school in terms of marketing,” says Kevin Givens, ANC’s head basketball coach and an alumnus. “Nobody had really heard of ANC before.”

The school is still fighting for notice, and that’s why Givens has been given the freedom to recruit players from the city, Delaware and even Canada to enrich the team — and the school’s reputation. “I had people who lived within 10 miles of the school say that they didn’t know we existed,” says Shawn Synnestvedt, ANC’s athletic director and another alum. “Now that we have had some [basketball] success, it increases the public profile and gives us an opportunity to get more families looking at the school.”

Germantown Academy head of school Jim Connor knows firsthand how athletic success can impact a school. When he coached baseball at GA in the late ’80s, the Patriots had a player named Mark Steffens, who was later signed by the Phillies. “When the story of Mark hit the papers, people were calling me and asking if they could come to GA,” says Connor, who by then was head of school. “Athletics are a conduit.”

Over the past several years, Germantown Academy has established endowed scholarship programs that are “need-based,” according to Connor. Each fall, as many as 40 student-athletes sit for examinations designed to narrow the field for the awards to five finalists. Even though all who take the test don’t qualify for the scholarship, many still end up attending the school. “One year, 16 of the applicants were in our next ninth-grade class,” Connor says. As a result of the scholarship program, Connor reports that “over the past 10 to 15 years, our athletic program has never been stronger across the board, and our academic program has never been stronger across the board.”

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  • jim

    While Catholic Schools cannot initiate contact with a student who does attend their officcial feeder school, once a student makes contact with a high school, that school is allowed to contact them…therefore prospective students attend “Open Houses” and ask to receive information…once again the public schools who have the advantage of unlimited tax payer funding (funny how thats never listed as an advantage) are portrayed as the victims…while tax-saving tuition based schools are deemed rule breakers…you guys gotta give up the envy

  • Josh

    Great job, great sports article well worth the read. It’s ashame how competitive high school sports has become. Middle Schoolers are definitely victim now.

  • jerry

    As a coach competing in the PIAA, I am always discouraged when I see evidence of cheating. The PIAA clearly defines recruiting as a violation. Anyone who does it is breaking the rules. In my book, breaking the rules is cheating. If a PIAA coach recruits, they are cheating. Its really that simple. They are a cheater! They know it, their players and parents know it, their athletic director and principal know it, everyone knows it, including the PIAA! There is no way of totally stopping it, but you can help deter cheating/recruiting by going to the PIAA website and filing a report. Anyone(let’s emphasize ANYONE), can file a report. Dont expect any monumental outcomes, just take pride in knowing that you are doing right by the thousands of coaches across the state that run their interscholastic programs with honesty and integrity. Coaches who recruit are coaches who cant coach very well and desperately need the talent to make up for their shortcomings. Why else would they recruit?

  • Mike

    Many people have said this for years, but it has fallen on deaf ears. It’s a real shame and it has ruined the game for area schools.

  • Mike

    Many people have said this for years, but it has fallen on deaf ears. It’s a real shame and it has ruined the game for area schools.

  • Bill

    Jim Murray AD at the Prep give me a break you and your Basketball coach walk around and act like your above everyone else you have been cheating for years just like everyone else but talk bad about coaches “Mile Overton”How did he end up at the prep you had kids on the team caught cheating on exams still on the team OH! They can do the work BS

  • Gil

    This is a hit piece written by someone with an agenda (an agenda he misrepresented in our one conversation) and my name should not have been used in the distorted way it has been used. This article makes it sound like I did some of the things associated with the anonymous family and it makes it sound like we only had success at the Prep because of recruiting. If it was just recruiting, why weren’t they successful before I got their. They had the same administration and the same goals. There was no “mandate” when I took over, merely a recognition that the whole Prep community had to become involved in attracting students. As I said to the writer, every Catholic school student is recruited and most, at least at Prep, are involved in activities. Further, the number of students the Prep got from NJ has been the same on a percentage basis since I went to the Prep. Finally, use of the “process” is misleading. As I mentioned to the writer, generally all one did was interact with young men and their families that already had an interest in the Prep. The writer ignored everything I told him that…

  • Drew

    To the person who ignorantly singles out Jim Murray, the Athletic Director at St. Joseph’s Prep, you obviously are not an alumnus of this prestigious institution. If you were, you could never have posted a comment with so many grammatical errors and so little substance.

  • Christine

    I will back Coach Gil Brooks’ approached 100% during his tenure at the Prep. When my son was accepted to the Prep, Coach Brooks hardly knew his name and had never pursued him at all. But my son, along with his best friend, wanted to attend the school because of the strong academics and nationally ranked football program. He enjoyed a great four years and was a captain his senior year, as was his best friend. The recruiting subject is blown way out of proportion, Coach Brooks didn’t do anything that any other football Coach wasn’t doing. The Prep is a great academic institution that almost all alums are proud of, it is a shame that so many people have a poor view of the football program… but with success comes scrutiny.

  • Jim

    Most if not all the kids on PCL teams come from CYO programs, that’s the basis. They were never headed to a public school in the first place, the idea that these kids were somehow stolen from the local public school is simply wrong. Public schools have advantages of their own, ie NO TUITION, no religion classes, etc.

  • Mary

    There are a few things that have been glossed over in this article. All students receiving financial aid in non-public schools have to fill out an application for aid. I know that bc we have been through the process. A coach doesn’t just say “We will pay your tuition.” It’s absurd to suggest that’s what happens. Also, the aid that one does receive comes from endowments or private donations. No taxpayers money goes to a student.Seems that benefits the public school system-more tax money per student. It’s interesting how the author didn’t focus on the Lasalle and Malvern players who transferred to public schools. Just the public to private. Public schools like to win a lot, too.Open your eyes to the whole picture. You will sound more credible.

  • Todd

    Penn Charter’s boosters have been paying for athletes tuition for decades. And they’re notorious for dropping admission standards to accept stud athletes. It’s driving their alumni crazy that Germantown Academy has surpassed them in virtually every sport (football being the only exception).

  • Jim

    It’s odd that the Prep has let LaSalle blow bast them in every sport. Is there any sport that LaSalle doesn’t win the Catholic League championship in? Meanwhile, Penn Charter’s athletic program is running on fumes. Can’t remember the last time they won anything significant.

  • Rick

    Interesting.

  • http://for-2012-live-and-online.html Jermaine Coachman

    Viewing the ncaa games live online should be simpler for us diehards. You have a alternate method?