When Mountain State Academy head coach Rob Fulford and the MSA administration decided to commit the time and resources to building a top-notch high school basketball program, they knew exactly where to look in order to find the perfect blueprint of what they were hoping to accomplish.
Specifically, they looked roughly two hours to the South of their location in Beckley. That's where you'll find Mouth of Wilson, Va., home of Oak Hill Academy. Over the past 30 years, the Warriors have been one of the nation's premier private school programs in the country, churning out a slew of Division I prospects each year.
NBA stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, Rajon Rondo and Stephen Jackson all attended Oak Hill. Collegiate standouts Eric Devendorf, K.C. Rivers, Nolan Smith and Jamont Gordon played for the Warriors. Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley each spent time at Oak Hill before transferring elsewhere for their final high school seasons.
So when it comes to building the type of program that Fulford wants to have – one which attracts talented players from all over the country and sends them away with Division I scholarships in hand – there is no better example to follow than that of Oak Hill. That is precisely what the MSA administration wanted to do.
"They came down and talked to me," said veteran OHA head coach Steve Smith. "They're not the first school to do that, we've had a lot of schools do that. I told them I would help them as much as I could and told them how we got started. We've been doing it for 30 years and while I didn't actually start it, I can tell him from 25 years that I've been there how it has been run."
On Tuesday night in Beckley, the difference between the two schools was evident. Smith's Warriors were simply too deep and too talented for Fulford's Falcons to upset in front of a sizeable crowd at the Raleigh County Armory. Oak Hill won by a final of 85-63.
"They don't have the depth that we have," Smith noted. "I noticed that when (Fulford) went to his bench, there was a drop off. When I go to my bench there is usually not a drop off. Their first five are strong. They have (Kofi Mensah) who is hurt, and he is supposed to be a good player."
In due time, the Falcons could very well become one of the nation's finest high school programs. Smith has already seen signs of improvement from his vantage point on the opposing bench.
"They have improved vastly," he said. "I think that they have good people running their program. Rob is a good coach, and I know it is something they want to grow more and more each year and there is no reason that they shouldn't. They have a great point guard (2010 West Virginia commit Noah Cottrill) for the next year-and-a-half, two years."
Another encouraging sign is the academic presence at MSA. Over the years, many "schools" have suddenly appeared out of nowhere with immensely talented basketball teams. Upon closer inspection of these fly-by-night operations, the schools' academic credibility has been called into question and ultimately, the team disperses.
Such is not the case with MSA, which has been in operation for several years prior to its commitment to building a nationally-recognized basketball program.
"It's a good school from what I've heard academically," Smith said. "It's not like some of these schools that pop up and they have a team then decide to have a school with 15 students, just the basketball team. They have a school first, and that's a climate that will work. Oak Hill is a school first. The school has been around for 130 years."
While they aren't quite on the same level yet as Oak Hill, there is reason for optimism at Mountain State Academy. Already, the Falcons have attracted high-profile talents such as Cottrill, the playmaking point guard from Poca (W.Va.) who has certainly heightened the program's profile within the state's borders. WVU-bound forward Deniz Kilici, a native of Turkey, is playing his lone American prep season as a Falcon.
Elsewhere on the roster is Nebraska-bound center Vander Joaquim. Freshman Najee Whitehead, a native of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., is already on the radar of several Division I schools. Forward Kofi Mensah has not played yet this season due to illness, but possesses Division I talent that has a number of schools, including West Virginia, expressing interest.
In just a short time, Mountain State has built a quality, if not ambitious, program.