Massanutten drops postgraduate basketball program

By Jeff Nations

Jarius Richardson had his path to college basketball all mapped out last week.

The 6-foot, 8-inch power forward who had starred at Petersburg High School planned to follow the path of his first cousin, Frank Mason Jr., who went from Petersburg to spend a year polishing his game and sharpening his academic skills at Massanutten Military Academy. It worked for Mason, who last year moved on from Massanutten to a full scholarship and steady role as a freshman playing at Kansas.

It worked for Mason, but it won’t for Richardson. On Sunday, he and 13 other incoming recruits to Massanutten’s highly successful postgraduate program received startling news — coach Melvin Abrams and the postgrad team won’t be at Massanutten come July 1.

“I spoke to the head of school today,” Abrams said Monday. “It’s a Board of Trustees decision.”

That decision came during the board’s meeting last Saturday, and Abrams learned he would be out of a job that night. On Sunday, he had to start making telephone calls to the players he’d recruited to inform them they would have to make other plans for the coming season.

“I’m a man of faith, so I’ll be fine,” said Abrams, who also served as the school’s athletics director. “My focus and concern is the kids. School starts in August, and it’s almost July. A lot of these [postgraduate] programs have already filled their rosters. Some of the kids walked away from other offers to be a part of this program.”

Richardson’s mother, Demetria Jennings, was shocked by the news. After all, she’d steadily been receiving updates on the program and plans for a weeklong camp starting July 6 on campus. It was the seeming stability of the postgraduate program, which has been in existence for several decades and has been nationally ranked the past two seasons, that convinced Jennings to send her son to Woodstock.

“It’s very upsetting and very awful for our kids,” Jennings said. “We’ve signed papers, we’ve put in deposits. We turned down other offers to attend Massanutten. It makes no sense.

“… We explored all the postgraduate programs in close proximity — Fishburne, Hargrave, Fork Union. Coach Abrams’ skills, his background is what sold us on the program.”

Bill Magruder, Massanutten’s Board of Trustees chairman, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. David A. Skipper, the interim head of school at Massanutten, emailed a statement from the school regarding the decision to “discontinue it’s Post Graduate (PG) Basketball Program.”

“As of June 23, 2014 only 5 students had committed to the program by signing a contract and making a deposit,” the statement reads. “In an effort to serve the best interests of the prospective students and the academy, the Board of Trustees made the painful decision to close the program.”

The decision is the latest significant change at the boarding school. In April, head of school Merle Henkel and three other staff members resigned from Massanutten, and a change in the school name — to Massanutten Academy — was reversed by the Board of Trustees back to Massanutten Military Academy. Within the last year, the school has also revamped its academic offerings to focus on more science and mathematics.

Angela Osborne’s son, 6-foot 7-inch forward DeAngelo Hunter from Louisville, Kentucky, is another of the players who thought he’d be attending Massanutten. In Hunter’s case, that included a $15,000 scholarship to attend the school. Osborne took out a loan for $10,000 to cover the remainder of the cost. Like many of the other players, he passed up other offers from postgraduate programs and colleges to play a season at Massanutten.

“People think these kids are going for free,” Osborne said. “It wasn’t free for me — I don’t know about the other kids, all the scholarships are different — but it’s not free, and people should know that.”

Former NFL cornerback Brian Kelly, who started for the Super Bowl XXXVII champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said he spoke with Skipper on the telephone after learning that his son Brilan, a 6-foot 5-inch shooting guard who just graduated from Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School, would have to scramble to find another place to play next year after committing to Massanutten. Kelly wanted to know how much it would cost to fund the program for at least this coming season.

“There wasn’t very much remorse on the other end of the phone, so I asked to speak with someone on the Board of Trustees,” Kelly said. “I was told that members of the board weren’t interested in talking to any of the parents.”

Kelly said he and other parents of affected players are considering their options.

“I don’t understand how anyone with kids can make this decision and then run,” Kelly said. “That’s what made me want to hop on a flight, to come there and get some answers.

“Whoever made that decision has damaged a lot of young men’s futures.”

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>