Robert K. Cato

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

For coaches, recruiting players in the AAU often means dealing with what are effectively talent scouts — people like LaMont Peterson. Peterson has associations with a stable of grade-school players in the Philadelphia area, trying to find the best high schools for them so they’ll qualify academically for college. (Peterson is also currently employed as a trainer by NBA player Tyreke Evans, a Chester native.) Because he works with players at an early age and knows a lot of them, Peterson gets plenty of calls from high-school coaches. “I’d say I’m very popular,” he says.

Some schools find it effective to bring prized recruits right to their own campuses. Take Episcopal Academy, which is trying to fight the current trend in Inter-Ac’s football hierarchy that favors its all-boys schools — Haverford School, Malvern Prep and Chestnut Hill Academy. This year, Episcopal began the Meehan All-Stars (named for a former athletics staffer), a select football team of eighth- and ninth-graders culled from local schools and Episcopal itself. The squad practices at Episcopal, directed by school coaches, and serves as a recruiting tool, just as the 58-year-old Little Quakers team does for Penn Charter, since it lets coaches assess not only talent, but character. “It’s like having our own clinic on campus,” Episcopal athletic director Gina Buggy says.

No matter how many prospects join the Meehan team, though, it won’t help Episcopal unless the admissions officers actually let some of the students enroll. That requires compromise.

“Not everybody can be an A student; somebody has to get a C-plus,” Buggy argues. “Now, if the kid getting a C-plus won’t go to homeroom and is a pain in the neck, you don’t want that. But if he’s hardworking, that’s fine. We all know a lot of people who got C-pluses in high school and had success in college and in their careers.

“Are we going to admit hardworking students who may not get As but bring something else?”

At St. Joe’s Prep, when it comes down to a choice between relatively equal candidates, strength in a sport is often the deciding factor. “If we have two students with pretty similar academic backgrounds and one happens to be a very good athlete, that kid will get the acceptance over the other,” says the school’s admission director, Jason Zazyczny.

Of course, just because a student is admitted doesn’t mean he can afford to attend. If you think the admissions process is shrouded in secrecy, you should get a load of the aid system. Every independent school emphasizes that its awards are “need-based.” But the way funds are sometimes distributed makes you wonder whose “need” we’re talking about — the family in question or the particular school’s athletic program. According to one Inter-Ac head football coach, a student’s expected contribution on the field is often the biggest factor in how much aid is provided. The key phrase used is “need-based, but merit-distributed.” In other words, if two applicants qualify for similar aid but only one can throw the football 70 yards, he’ll get more money than the one who can’t.