How prep academies are taking over the Arizona HS basketball landscape
AZ Compass Prep and Hillcrest Prep are ranked among the top 15 boys’ basketball teams in the country.
They played in the shadow of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which oversees athletic competitions for most of the state’s high schools, but not the basketball-focused prep academies.
But did they finally come out of the shadows of AIA and take control of Phoenix-area high school basketball?
On Wednesday night, Hillcrest Prep faced off against PHHoenix Prep at the Footprint Center, the first time the prep academies have met since last year, when PHH Prep stunned Hillcrest in Gilbert’s digs of Hillcrest at Aspire Courts.
Just getting these teams to compete against each other was a step in a direction that suggests they are in the same boat, trying to create a positive vibe meant to further boost high school basketball in the metropolis of Montreal. rapid growth of Phoenix.
John Ortega, who runs PHH Prep from PHHacility in South Phoenix, calls Hillcrest Prep co-founder Nick Weaver as the Arizona academy basketball “prep godfather”.
“There’s no prep in Arizona without Westwind,” Ortega said, referring to the first prep academy he started in Arizona.
The academies are basketball-focused, attracting top high school players from across the country, building teams that play other top national programs rather than compete with traditional high schools.
Westwind is where it all started in Arizona in 2012.
Weaver and Matt Allen worked alongside Jeff de Laveaga, who became the COO of West Phoenix Prep Academy, which released the Findlay Prep plan from Las Vegas. Except they mostly went with players from the State, such as Josh Braun from Boulder Creek, Zylan Cheatham from South Mountain, and Connor MacDougall from Corona del Sol.
There were academic stumbling blocks that caused Westwind to become short-lived.
But Weaver and Allen took the concept and created Hillcrest Prep in 2015, using the Westwind experience as a learning tool to get it right.
But they met critics, people who wanted to see them fold.
They did that. Current Suns center Deandre Ayton was drawn to it and has become the face of the program. Nike jumped on board. Now the Bruins are thriving in their seventh season as the national high school preparation academy, traveling the country for games against other top national programs.
“There was a lot of hatred back then for the preparations,” Weaver said.
Weaver never imagined that the preparatory scene was growing like it was in Arizona. Besides AZ Compass, PHH Prep, and Hillcrest, there’s Dream City Christian (coached by Weaver’s brother, Kyle), Bella Vista in Scottsdale, and Eduprize in Gilbert.
Before Westwind and Hillcrest, Findlay Prep was the only basketball academy in the West. Most of them have been found on the east coast.
PHH Prep started in 2020, an original idea from Ortega. He asked Weaver for advice on how to execute it.
Unlike Hillcrest, whose most of its roster includes out-of-state players, PHH Prep was filled with local talent, attracting kids leaving the AIA ranks to try and gain a greater competitive advantage. and scholarship hopes by playing year round and in a more rigid training regimen with strength and conditioning work.
In its second season last year, PHH Prep beat Hillcrest, a shocking development. But instead of being born a rivalry, it became more a fraternity. Many Hillcrest players compete in the off-season for the Ortega club teams. They also use the PHHaciity for training.
They share, instead of creating division.
“I thought people were so traditional that they wouldn’t take (the preparations),” Weaver said. “I was hoping they would. I’m happy to see what it is now. To have two Arizona teams ranked among the top teams in the country right now? It’s unheard of.”
Hillcrest Prep, which improved to 15-1 after edging PHH Prep 68-66 Wednesday night behind play from Arizona State-linked Duke Brennan, Louisville engages Kamari Lands and Shawn Simmons, is ranked No. ° 12 by MaxPreps for national preparation academies.
AZ Compass Prep, which is based in Chandler, where he studies at the charter school near Chandler High School, is 17-1 and ranked No. 5 in the country by MaxPreps after beating Our Savior Lutheran of Bronx, New York, 78-40, and Westtown of West Chester, Pa., 75-45, in the Slam Dunk to the Beach storefront last week.
AZ Compass Prep reached the GEICO National Semifinals last year, behind Arizona-grown TyTy Washington, who now plays in Kentucky. This AZ Compass team is led by junior goalie Kylan Boswell, who left an excellent Centennial schedule in Corona, Calif., To elevate his game to a more national level.
Last summer, when program director Pete Kaffey (formerly of Findlay Prep) was preparing his next AZ Compass Prep slate of candidates, he said all egos were “vetted at the gate” and one of the main Goals were to “put kids in the position to be a pro someday, whether in the workforce and by being pro.”
“No matter what it takes for our kids to get an edge, we’re open to it,” Kaffey said in August. “We follow a different set of rules, as long as it doesn’t endanger anything. It’s not the ’80s or’ 90s. It’s a new world. You better get used to it or you’re going to be excluded.”
Transfers from AIA schools
In Hillcrest’s 68-66 victory over PHH Prep, several players factored in the play that left the AIA scene.
Brennan, who started her high school career at Gilbert Perry, was a beast on the boards of Hillcrest.
For PHH Prep, Will Coates, who left Desert Vista after winning the 6A title two years ago, scored big 3-pointers and helped take a 49-41 lead before Lands-led Hillcrest. and Shannon, did a 14-0 at the end of the third quarter and took a 57-49 lead.
“They’re a great team,” Lands said of PHH Prep. “It was a great victory for us as a team. They played a great game.
“The prep scene kept my confidence, playing at a good level.”
PHH Prep coach Kirk Fauske, former Phoenix Mountain Pointe coach, felt his players showed resilience against a nationally ranked team to have Hillcrest on the ropes much of the game, then came back late and almost pulled the shake up for a second year in a row.
“We did what we do,” said Fauske. “We’ll be playing anyone, anytime, anywhere. For the chance to play a top ESPN team, and three of these guys are in the top 50 (in the country they’re going to play on this floor one day (the arena of the Suns).
“It came down to a free throw.”
Lands’ two free throws with 49 seconds left gave Hillcrest a 68-65 lead.
Brennan scored on a follow-up shot with 1:46 left to give Hillcrest a 64-61 lead after PHH Prep scored seven straight runs to get closer to a point.
“I think it’s NBA 3 and we’ll be good,” Hillcrest coach Marcus Gant said. “But they shot NBA 3 like it was high school 3. Amazing game, man. It took a lot of things for us to win.”
Brennan was happy to face the familiar faces of the other team. Some of them that he played against growing up. He knows Ortega well in the ranks of the AAU club.
“Today was a battle but we ended up coming out of it,” Brennan said. “It was fun, especially in this arena.”
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