Cincinnati School Aims To Become National Power

Could a rival to nationally-known basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy be forming right here in Ohio? That is one of the goals of the Cincinnati Harmony Community School basketball program, which is definitely on the rise. Harmony's presence could greatly affect the college basketball recruiting scene in the state of Ohio and across the country as well. Read on for more.

As Harmony Community School's principal and athletic director Deland McCullough sat down one morning at his desk, he clicked on his computer and went to the Cincinnati Enquirer website. McCullough had been at a crossroads -- until he read that morning's edition of the Enquirer.

Searching for a solution to the many obstacles created by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, or OHSAA for short, McCullough wanted to give his school's athletic programs a boost but didn't know how to do so with the many transfer regulations and increasing legislation to level the playing field between private and public schools.

He wanted to make a transition to prep curriculum for the urbanized school located near Wyoming and Reading in the north center portion of the Greater Cincinnati area. The school itself, with an enrollment of around 900 kids, is 90 percent African-American and has allowed fifth-year students before.

That's where the Enquirer article came in.

In this February edition, McCullough noticed an article on the Cincinnati Christian Center Academy, a small prep school coached by Travis McAvene. The article focused on their 30-4 record, and also some of the challenges they faced as a school in their position.

McCullough thought to himself, 'What better idea than to seek advice from a coach in the position he ultimately wants his school to be in.'

At the end of the article, McAvene's phone number was listed, and McCullough gave him a call. The phone conversation was only meant to be advice on how to make the transition for his school, especially related to athletics and how to deal with the OHSAA.

"I saw the story on CCA, and I said to myself, 'Hey, this will work right here on doing prep school'," McCullough recalled after seeing the story. "Originally, I was just going to get out of the OHSAA and play teams from Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia. It had his phone number on there and I wanted to give Travis a call just to troubleshoot and see how everything worked. We kind of had a mutual understanding after talking and we had some things he wanted to do and I wanted to do, and we decided it might be a good idea to do them together."

So back in early April, McAvene decided to become the next boys' head basketball coach for the school in its inaugural season as a prep school allowing both four and five year students.

"Deland called me and said he wanted to get out of OHSAA and run the program as a prep school," McAvene explained. "We kind of shared the same vision for the school and he realized I had a lot of contacts to get our basketball program on the map."

Within a month, the school had withdrawn itself from membership of the OHSAA for both boys and girls basketball, and in May, had accepted an invitation to join a 32-team league for prep and high schools called the National Elite Athletic Association based out of Las Vegas.

The move meant that Harmony Prep could no longer play games against OHSAA member institutions unless they counted as scrimmages before the season started for those particular high schools. It also meant that Harmony was ready to put together an aggressive national schedule.

The schedule for the upcoming 2005-2006 season will include games against Cincinnati Taft, Trotwood-Madison and also Daequan Cook and the Division II state semifinal representative Dayton Dunbar. Further, it includes trips to Atlanta, Chicago, Delaware and Mississippi for tournaments, and also an away game with powerful Oak Hill Academy located in Mouth of Wilson, Va.

In addition, Harmony has scheduled five games against smaller colleges to further boost the quality of their competition.

The model for Harmony Prep has become Oak Hill, a powerhouse boarding school that has produced the likes of Jerry Stackhouse, Ron Mercer and Carmelo Anthony, although technically Oak Hill does not accept fifth year students unlike Harmony.

"No one is going to blink an eye until Harmony beats an Oak Hill. Everyone knows them," McCullough said. "We don't have any problems stepping up and playing the best."

"We want to start by playing some of the local area teams because that's how we build the momentum," he added. "We don't have a problem playing colleges. People will take notice."

Quickly, people did take notice.

College and AAU coaches alike began taking notice in the early summer of what was going on at Harmony Prep, and McCullough's phones rang off the hook with kids and families inquiring about the opportunities that existed there.

More than a handful of college coaches, including Temple legend John Chaney, visited the school.

"I think the word is already out," McCullough said proudly. "I had a guy (a coach) come down from up north and he told me flat out that this is the best prep job in the country."

"With the facilities, the school support, the academic prowess, it's a great job. I've had guys like John Chaney, Reggie Theus and some pretty good coaches in this building. I had John Chaney in here and telling me it's a great place and that he believes we have everything we need to be successful," McCullough added.

Players, like the coaches, also noticed.

Interested players began talking to McCullough and McAvene about attending the school that had not even yet played a game in their new environment. But McAvene easily filled up a roster for their A and B teams.

"I brought in 29 kids for two programs," McAvene said. "We understand there will be a lot of kids that become ineligible, or quit, or transfer out, or whatever. There's turnover at places like this."

Among those 29 players is a boatload of talented kids.

In the fifth-year category alone is a quartet of top 100 caliber players that include (Indiana commitment and 6-1 combo guard) Deonte Vaughn, (6-2 guard) Marcus Rhodes, (Southern Illinois commitment and 6-4 guard) Josh Tabb and (6-4 guard and transfer from Bridgeton (Maine) Academy) Tyrone Appleton. Joining the group of fifth-year players is Mansfield Senior's Jonathan Avery, a 6-7 wing that averaged 16.6 points and 10.5 rebounds this past year as a senior.

The talent doesn't end there. There is also a lot of talent in the class of 2007 that will be juniors with two (or three) years of eligibility remaining. That begins with 6-9 forward Quincy Owens of Milwaukee, who recently gave a verbal commitment to Seton Hall.

The most recent (and perhaps most talented) player to join the fray is Alexander Tyus -- a 6-8 forward from St. Louis. Tyus is ranked in the class of 2007 as the No. 34 best player overall in the country by and has offers from Arizona, Florida, Syracuse and many others.

Harmony also boasts a player in the class of 2008 by the name of Beas Hamga, a 6-11 center from Cameroon, Africa. Hamga is a guy that McAvene believes has a big future ahead of him.

"He's 6-11 and we're going to try to get him to be more physical," McAvene said. "He's got great agility and nice awareness around the basket. We feel like in 2010 he will be a top NBA draft pick. Just like Alex Tyus has the shot of being a top pick as well."

For now, Tyus is the coupe of this program looking to make a splash.

"The biggest thing was when it came down to it was that his father wanted him out on the circuit this summer, and he wanted him to be in Cincinnati obviously," McAvene explained of Tyus' transfer to Harmony. "This first began because I was good friends with a top assistant at UNLV, his name is Steve Henson, and he initiated the contact. He asked us about possibly taking Alex into our program. There were a lot of high profile schools wanting to get Alex in to their schools, so we really weren't sure it was going to happen. We brought him in, and he felt comfortable, and we were really happy to have him here."

The inclusion of Vaughn and Tyus, both guys who played the summer AAU circuit with the powerful D-I Greyhounds, leads people to wonder if the best isn't yet to come for Harmony.

The list of schools for North College Hill sensations O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker officially reads Cincinnati, West Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida A&M, Indiana, Louisville and a host of other schools. But what about Harmony Prep?

A few sources, wishing to remain anonymous, have indicated there is some scuttlebutt in the Cincinnati area that the close relationship with the D-I Greyhounds could make a perfect fit for Mayo and Walker if they decide to play their fifth seasons in a prep school rather than going to college.

After all, in prep school they could play the top competition around the country for a season and possibly not be ruled ineligible for getting any sort of endorsement until they entered the NBA draft the following season. It also would keep them in Cincinnati.

For now, McAvene and Harmony would most certainly prefer to concentrate on the players they have rather than speculate on players they don't have. The players that are already there gives McAvene plenty to be excited about.

"We feel like in the preseason we will be top five in a lot of national polls. Obviously Oak Hill is the king of the jungle for schools on a national level. We obviously feel if we can play good basketball we can create a lot of noise," he said.

"We're trying to get our kids to buy into the team concept. I'll go on record as saying that we have a great group of kids this year," McAvene added.

People are amazed at how quickly talented has found its way to Harmony. McAvene credits relationships built up over a number of years as the biggest factor, including his relationship with Indiana head basketball coach Mike Davis for getting Vaughn this season.

"I've been pretty good friends with Mike Davis for about three years now, and even at one point he considered sending his son to play with me in the winter of 2003," McAvene said. "We kept a relationship, and obviously Deonte was probably not going to qualify, and he came down and visited our gym in April I think. When they found out he wouldn't qualify, they (Indiana) asked us to take him in and we did that."

Many folks will look at Harmony Prep and see an emerging athletics powerhouse that wants to win -- a notion that either McCullough or McAvene would disagree with. After all, the school plans to make the same jump out of OHSAA for its football program in the fall of 2006.

However, McCullough is looking at the bigger picture.

"When I started thinking of leaving OHSAA, I didn't want to limit the opportunities of our kids, and I mean opportunities of being a productive student," McCullough said. "If sports help you be productive, why should we limit that? These kids were transferring and OHSAA was saying they weren't eligible. Who does that help?"

"The kids that come here obviously need help both academically and athletically. If we're helping them as students, individuals, and players, isn't that a good thing? Our mission is to prepare them for the next level of life, whatever that may be," McCullough elaborated of their mission.

That's one of the many reasons Harmony will accept fifth year players.

"It was almost like we were made to make this move," McCullough noted. "Our charter allows us to educate students 11 to 22. We routinely had students that were in their 5th or 6th years here for students who walked in and were prep deficient."

McCullough's concerns with the OHSAA had spanned over the last year and a half. It was in February when he started to go out of his way to make changes.

A lot of it had to do with increasing frustration regarding students transferring to their school.

"We don't even exist without transfers because we are an alternative school. We're an alternative to public education," McCullough said of his school's mission objective. "We don't have a problem getting kids to come to our school, but under certain policies those kids are ineligible. The whole goals of open enrollment is how our school operates, it has nothing to do with our sports."

"We decided if we were going to get out of OHSAA, we wanted to make a move to become a premier program. We wanted to introduce our basketball team this year as being non-OHSAA. We didn't have to do much to make the move. After we announced our coach, the calls came. Hundreds," he concluded.

And now, before even a game has been played, McCullough is seeing his vision -- the one that he shared with McAvene -- become a reality.

With every newspaper article giving their school and their program another wave of publicity, probably another kid and another parent is considering Harmony Prep as a viable option. McAvene can only imagine the possibilities.

"We have a lot to offer kids here at this school, and obviously I think we have the resources to thrive on a national level like an Oak Hill Academy," McAvene said. "This place won't be for everyone, but we're just trying to get kids to buy into the team concept. Obviously there will be challenges, but I think we can be successful."

If you were into the stock market, now would be the time to invest in Harmony Prep. You probably didn't expect to see stock tips, but you never know what you will find sometimes just doing some casual reading.

Just ask Deland McCullough.

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