By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- It took just one look for Terry Brutus to fully realize what a starkly different environment Massanutten Military Academy could offer a soon-to-be-transplanted New Yorker.
"It's just real different," Brutus said. "The land, it's more suburban out here. I'd never seen, like, cows on the side of the road."
A powerfully built 6-foot-6 forward, Brutus was checking out MMA last August as a potential next step in his basketball career -- a familiar path for top-level recruits that often starts in public high school (Spring Valley, N.Y.) then on to private school for two years at Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran and finally a year of postgraduate basketball to polish up his game and maybe improve his offers.
That's where MMA came in -- with a postgraduate program run by an energetic and well-connected new coach in Chad Myers, the Colonels seemed to offer just what Brutus was looking for as he prepped for college. It offered a few things he wasn't looking for, too, like that bovine close-up. Or his first wake-up call for formation, a mandatory 6:30 a.m. outdoor review in full uniform -- military, not basketball -- which starts the day for all MMA cadets. Formation takes place three times daily at MMA -- before breakfast, lunch and dinner -- highlighted by saluting and raising the flag, then a march to the cafeteria.
Even more than the odd cow sighting, that idea -- military school -- gave Brutus pause before deciding to go ahead and take the plunge at MMA. It's a common feeling, said Myers, himself a military school alum after having spent two years at Hargrave Military Academy before going on to his own collegiate career at Shepherd University. But once his players got over that "initial shock," Myers has watched them thrive in MMA's regimented lifestyle.
"There's no distractions here, whether for basketball or school," Myers said. "I think it helps them in the classroom because we have small class sizes. I think it helps them clear out other distractions and they spend more time in the gym working on their game."
To a man, improving their game -- and stock as potential college recruits -- is a primary reason for Myers' players spending a year or more at MMA. On his 12-player roster, Myers has a blend of athletes working to improve their grades and become academic qualifiers, postgraduates aiming to sharpen their basketball skills one more year in hopes of gaining a college scholarship or moving up a level, and a sprinkling of undergraduates who simply seek the challenge of playing against stiffer competition.
"I want to develop my game a little bit better," Brutus said. "I wasn't really satisfied with the [offers] that I had because I knew I could have gotten better ones. I've gotten better ones since I came here."
Senior point guard Corban Collins falls into that last category. The High Point, N.C., native took the same path as Brutus -- shifting from a public high school, to a private school, then on to a postgraduate program. But Collins doesn't need the extra year like Brutus -- a late qualifier who's already compiled a list of offers from NCAA Division I schools including Arkansas, Tennessee, George Washington and Charlotte. Collins, already academically eligible to play in college next year, has offers in hand from Virginia Tech and Miami. Still, he's considering coming back to MMA for a postgraduate year.
"Every day I'm getting pushed," Collins said. "At my other school, it was just like kids that were there played just to play. Here, everyone was the best on their team. So we're all good and we get pushed every day in practice.
"As far as competition-wise, every game if you don't bring your best you can lose. We're playing the best of the best, all the best schools, all the best competition -- most of the time, the schools we play have five or six Division I players signed already. You have to bring your 'A' game."
Collins has company on a talented Colonels squad that features no less than six players with Division I offers so far, with perhaps more coming. The basketball website RecruitDirt.com ranked MMA as the No. 9 prep school in the nation earlier this month. Myers' squad is 17-4 playing a schedule composed rival prep schools, junior-college teams and junior varsity Division I squads. Among those rare defeats was a loss to No. 3 Brewster Academy, and an 86-83 setback against No. 2 Hargrave Academy last Saturday in Roanoke. It was an encouraging sign for Myers, who aims to build MMA's postgraduate program into a consistent rival to Hargrave. Myers saw firsthand how to make that happen, first as a player and then for three years as an assistant coach at the school.
"I think for me the model was always kind of Hargrave because that's what I knew," Myers said. "Basketball-wise, I think Hargrave has been the power in the state for the last 15 years as far as prep schools. They produce numerous high-level to NBA guys, and that's what we want to build this into. We feel like this is the best team we've ever had here."
Myers, who spent three years as the director of basketball operations at Radford University before taking the job at MMA, has been a tireless recruiter as he tries to make that vision a reality. Through his contacts among the collegiate coaching ranks and on the AAU circuit, Myers is bringing high-level recruits to Woodstock -- among them senior Cameron Jones (offers from College of Charleston, Appalachian State), senior Zac Grossenbacher (committed to Wofford), junior D.J. Foreman (being recruited by multiple Division I schools, including Old Dominion and Delaware) and postgraduate Brian Harris (Duquesne, Hofstra).
"Coach Myers really knows what he's doing," said Grossenbacher, a 6-7 forward from Parkersburg, W.Va. "He has unlimited contacts as a head coach. It's just an all-around great situation. I wouldn't change my decision for anything."
Like his teammates, Grossenbacher admits the military-school experience has opened his eyes a bit and broadened his horizons a lot -- benefits he feels certain will help make the transition to college easier next year.
"I really didn't know much about the military or the military aspects of [MMA], but now I'm learning more about it and now I understand more why people go into the military," Grossenbacher said. "I have more respect for military people."
The cost of attending a private school like MMA can be a deterrent, but Myers has some scholarship flexibility and can offer varying amounts to players hoping to attend. No matter the financial arrangement, each of Myers' players gets the same treatment with daily individual workouts and two hours of practice.
The goal is to help as many players as possible move on to collegiate careers, but for his program Myers is shooting for something a bit more immediate -- a spot as one of the top 10 teams in the country competing in the season-ending national prep school showcase at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn. The winner takes home the title as unofficial prep school national champions.
"First of all, just the recognition for the school," Myers said of the benefits to MMA of fielding a postgraduate program. "If we go out and we're playing all across the country and we've got guys -- like our point guard has been offered by Virginia Tech -- if he commits somewhere in the ACC, then every time you open a program or turn on the television and it says Massanutten Military Academy, it's a free source of advertisement.
"I think the school looks for our guys to lead by example because they are a little older. A lot of times the kids will kind of fall in behind them if they'll do the right thing, as well."
At home games, that goal can sometimes feel far away for Myers and his players as the often play before sparse crowds unless the MMA corps is able to file in to help fill up the stands. The Colonels have just one homestand left when they host the Norfolk Southern Invitational on Feb. 4-5, and Myers is hoping to see some new faces in the crowd.
"This place is built on helping kids," Myers said. "Everybody has different reasons for being here; we're just kind of another example of the school helping a kid reach their dream.
"... Probably none of these guys five years ago thought they'd be wearing military uniforms, but it helps you get to the next place you want to be."