When York Prep Academy basketball coach Frank Hamrick appeared at a middle school basketball game in Fort Mill last winter, he caught Dwayne Hartsoe’s eye.
Hartsoe coaches Fort Mill High’s boys’ varsity team and was watching some of the eighth-grade players zoned to attend his school. Local coaches know when they see Hamrick in the stands that he’s potentially scouting their players -- or soon-to-be former players.
Hamrick’s YPA program isn’t bound by the rules of the South Carolina High School League or South Carolina Independent Schools Association.
So he says he’s not breaking any rules when he recruits.
Still, coaches don’t appreciate Hamrick’s appearances.
“The problem I have with (YPA) is them actively going out and recruiting players that the local high school coaches have put the time and energy into,” said Northwestern boys’ varsity coach John Bramlett.
At the heart of the issue is two completely divergent views on the role of high school sports.
The SCHSL was founded in 1907 and for most of its 110 years the high school sports experience provided by its members has been based on student-athletes being zoned to specific schools, but also connected to the school emotionally, through family and community ties that can cross generations.
More recently, high school sports increasingly focus on individuals and their future opportunities.
In public and private school programs like Hamrick’s, college scholarships are preferred over championships. And, in many cases, the team is simply a vessel for the betterment of individuals, many of whom are willing to move across cities or states to improve their perceived chances of earning scholarships.
Exposure is deemed critical, which means lots of games in front of lots of people, and playing with, and against, the best players.
Neither point of view is totally right -- or wrong.
The conflict surfaces in hot-button issues like the Rock Hill school district’s January decision to force student-athletes transferring within the district to sit out a year of sports participation. Most people’s responses to the new rule fell in either of the two camps: that ease of movement for student-athletes harms the programs left behind; or that parents should have ultimate agency over their kids’ futures.
Charter schools in high school sports
York Prep Academy basketball in some ways represents the continued dismantling of the 20th century ideal of high school sports, where students walked down the block or made a short bus ride to their neighborhood school with friends they’ve known since birth, to represent (in all likelihood) their parents’ alma mater and try to win a state championship that would make them local legends. The student’s school path was seemingly already laid out.
Charter schools were first approved in South Carolina in 1996 and just shy of 40 now exist in the state. Charters like YPA, often assembling students from different neighborhoods who weren’t getting a satisfying result for whatever reason from the public school they were zoned to attend, are nothing like the previously described Archie comic book ideal. Charter schools, which have widely varying academic results, are a blend of traditional public and private schools and in athletics, charters often operate in the margins between the two traditional systems.
Unlike public schools, charters like YPA compete for every student who enrolls. Hamrick’s basketball program is no different.
“We’re trying to entice you to send your kid to me,” he said. “Right out of the gate we’re different.”
With that mission in mind, is it fair that charter schools, which receive public tax funds, get to operate in the margins? That’s a question prep sports will grapple with in the coming decade as charters’ popularity continues to grow.
YPA managing director Brian Myrup said that topic doesn’t come up much in large gatherings of charter school administrators and advocates, or at YPA board meetings. They’re focused on more pressing issues like equitable funding and educational quality. The charter school idea was initially hyper-focused on academics; sports didn’t really come up in the conversation until recently, Myrup said.
But the same underlying concept that launched charter schools exists in YPA’s budding sports offerings: presenting parents and their kids an alternative to the traditional path.
“Fairness” comes up constantly when talking to local high school basketball coaches about YPA.
The jobs they do are evaluated in large part on their win-loss records, and YPA makes that tougher.
“It’s tough when you’re a public school coach when you have another school that can totally focus on basketball,” Hartsoe said.
“It really strains our ability to be successful,” Bramlett said.
Hartsoe sees YPA’s main advantage as its year-round ability to practice and play more games: “It’s true, there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.
Here are some of the criticisms levied at Hamrick and his program:
This is issue No. 1. It’s against SCHSL rules for high school coaches to recruit players, but YPA doesn’t have any such restrictions.
Bramlett said Hamrick and his coaches scout middle school games and talk to players and their parents about transferring to YPA. A pair of promising middle school players zoned for Fort Mill instead recently ended up at YPA, but Hartsoe was miffed to see Hamrick later add a high level college prospect in their position.
Recruiting is a big reason wh YPA’s 44-game schedule this past season included just four South Carolina public schools and none from York County. Local schools won’t play the Patriots.
“I would like their coaches to be more ethical and more respectful of what we are doing as high school coaches,” Bramlett said. “We can’t recruit. And I wouldn’t do it anyway because it’s unethical.”
Hamrick said in the Fort Mill middle schooler instance, the player’s mother reached out to him and asked if he would come watch the game and evaluate her son. Myrup said that athletes don’t get preferential admission treatment at YPA and that the school’s enrollment records are audited once a year by the South Carolina Charter School District.
▪ Harming traditional high school basketball programs
The coaches’ aggravation over recruiting partly stems from working with a player through elementary and middle school, summer camps and team camps, only for another coach to swoop in and take the player.
“It puts you in a bad situation,” Hartsoe said.
Bramlett said people connected with York Prep -- not Hamrick -- are bad-mouthing traditional high school basketball, saying it doesn’t give kids exposure, that they don’t get kids into college basketball and that the coaching is better at York Prep.
“We’re basically saying those schools are better for our kids because of basketball,” said Bramlett, who had two Northwestern players sign college scholarships this spring. “Versus what we’re trying to do in our school systems.”
Bramlett doesn’t think extra exposure is necessary, especially with AAU basketball so prominent in recruiting.
“If you’re good enough to play college basketball, they’re gonna find you,” he said.
▪ Not academically OK with NCAA
Both sides of the YPA conflict accuse the other of disseminating false information, making it tough for parents to discern the truth. One claim often made against YPA, that the school is not in good academic standing with the NCAA, isn’t true.
YPA is NCAA-accredited.
The process took two years while the school was initially reviewed and waiting on a senior class to graduate, both requirements for new schools seeking NCAA academic sanctioning, but it received accreditation last year.
Hamrick sat down at a computer earlier this month and typed, “is my school NCAA approved?” into Google.
He found York Prep in the NCAA clearinghouse web site’s list of South Carolina schools. YPA’s account said “CLEARED” in all capital letters.
What if YPA joined the SCHSL and adhered to its rules? The school’s high school enrollment is growing and Hamrick, who is also the athletic director, has thought about the question.
“We’re getting to a point where it might be considered,” he said. “But the question is, does it further what we can do? Does it make the experience better for all the kids? Does it enhance what we’re doing? Because I answer to a managing director and he answers to a board.”
Several charter schools compete in SCHSL athletics: Fox Creek, Gray Collegiate and Calhoun Falls.
The logistics make a jump to the SCHSL unlikely. YPA lacks enough athletic fields, has just one activity bus and Hamrick has no secretary or administrative help.
YPA has 400 students in its high school, 1A classification numbers. But it would have to play in 2A because of the SCHSL’s 2016 rules bumping schools that don’t draw from a specific zone up a level (think Christ Church or Bishop England).
One of Hamrick’s sells to kids considering YPA is the level of competition that the Patriots play, including national powers like Providence Day, Norcross (Ga.) and Oak Hill. Mega college recruit Zion Williamson and his Spartanburg Day team are scheduled to play at YPA this coming season.
Cheraw, Andrew Jackson and Blacksburg, potential 2A region foes if YPA joined the SCHSL, don’t get the pulses racing as quickly. That’s partly why Hamrick maintains that he can’t create the same experience for his kids within the SCHSL.
“How does it further what we’re trying to do?” he asked. “I don’t think it does right now.”
Hamrick would rather join North Carolina’s private school league, the NCISAA, in part because of YPA’s proximity to many of the league’s Charlotte members as opposed to South Carolina SCISA schools primarily based in Columbia and the Lower State, and also because of his familiarity competing in that organization from his time at Westminster Catawba.
The NCISAA doesn't have rules against recruiting. It also doesn't allow charter schools to join as members.
Traditional vs. modern approach?
Hamrick and the high school coaches want the same thing: to get kids to college, preferably for free.
“If I took my mission statement and put it down with any other school’s mission statement, they’re both good,” said Hamrick. Development of “skill, knowledge, determination, character. You don’t think they’re wanting those same things?”
But the approaches to reaching those outcomes couldn’t be more different.
“Winning a state championship means nothing to us,” he said.
Hamrick explained that kids’ motivations are different from even just five years ago, in part because of social media.
What’s more important? he asked. A championship ring or posting the “Blessed to be offered by _______” message on Twitter or Instagram?
“What’s motivating the kids is changing, and lets’ be honest, what’s motivating the parents is changing,” Hamrick said. “There is a part of me that hates that, that says embrace where you’re at now, enjoy every minute of this. But I’ve got a daughter and a fact that a certain college gave her the most money drove our decision as to where she was gonna go to school. So I can understand all of that.”