Grant Traylor: WVSSAC holds key for H Prep, ESPN Rise
The ESPN Rise National High School Invitational wants nationally ranked Huntington Prep in its season-end tournament from March 29-31.
Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford absolutely wants his team to have the chance to prove that it's one of the nation's best and potentially bring a national title back to West Virginia.
However, none of that will happen without the help of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletics Commission (WVSSAC) -- namely executive director Gary Ray -- and time is running extremely short.
"It's a no-brainer that we deserve to be in and they want us in, but they need the WVSSAC to say that we can play West Virginia teams if we want," Fulford said. "It's simple. If they say we can play, we are in. Time is of importance because they have six teams and two open spots. They are holding one for us."
In only its third year of existence, Huntington Prep has climbed to the top five nationally in several polls, but the ESPN Fab 50 is currently not one of them -- based on the current situation.
Inclusion in the poll and the year-end tournament essentially hinges on the same grounds -- those involved need a letter of recognition from the state governing body and they need to be eligible to play in-state teams.
Earlier this year, Huntington Prep missed out on a pair of nationally-televised contests between ranked teams because they did not have that letter.
According to Fulford, Bill Archer, principal at Huntington St. Joe, spoke with Ray on Huntington Prep's behalf because the Express players attend Huntington St. Joe for class. Several state senators reportedly also spoke with Ray on Fulford's behalf, and Ray ended up signing the letter of recognition, which was drafted by Huntington lawyer Mike Woelfel.
There had been no specification in the letter regarding playing in-state teams because Fulford and the WVSSAC have a gentleman's agreement that would not take place.
However, ESPN still needs the WVSSAC to agree that Huntington Prep can play in-state teams even if the two sides agree that it will not take place.
Fulford confirmed that he would keep to his word regarding the good-faith agreement and hopes the WVSSAC realizes that a call to ESPN on their behalf would only strengthen that agreement -- not hinder it.
"Our goal is not to be eligible for championships in West Virginia and, as said before, we are committed to not scheduling in-state competition or taking in-state players," Fulford said. "I don't care if the next O.J. Mayo comes rolling through the Mountain State, we will not take him."
Not only does Fulford not want to take players from West Virginia away from their home teams, he wants to help promote all basketball throughout the Mountain State and Tri-State area.
Huntington Prep held its own tournament at Chesapeake High School this year and had several local teams involved. The Express also played in the Ironton Classic and helped bring national exposure to the tournament, which was featured on the front of ESPN's high school webpage.
Fulford wants to be able to continue to do so that way that local schools benefit from having Huntington Prep in the area.
"There's no doubt that we will put coaches in the stands, and they will be able to be exposed to players that they probably never would have otherwise," Fulford said. "That opens opportunities for not only our kids, but other local kids as well. Everyone wins."
Part of the stigma regarding prep programs such as Huntington Prep is that the players for those programs are not held to any academic standards.
In fact, The Washington Post came to Huntington earlier this year for four days to do a story on the Express -- both from an athletic and academic standpoint.
What the story found was that Huntington Prep is exactly what it proclaims to be -- a basketball program in which the players hold to the academic standards of Huntington St. Joe.
If that was not the case, Archer would not have spoken on the program's behalf to Ray, who said he feels Huntington Prep is "kind of like an AAU team" in The Washington Post article.
"We couldn't have had a better stamp of approval from Bill Archer," Fulford said. "He and Gary Ray are friends and have known each other a long time because he (Archer) runs the state wrestling tournament. There's a level of trust there."
One of the unique things about Huntington Prep is that the players are held to extremely high standards by Fulford.
On several different occasions this year, players missed games because they either didn't feel well enough to go to school on game-day or got in trouble while at school on game-day.
Fulford also makes sure that even though his players are not from the Tri-State, they contribute to the community during their time in Huntington.
Players passed out candy at Halloween for the Cabell County Courthouse's Safe Trick-or-Treat and they make several appearances as volunteers each year to try and be contributing citizens.
Fulford said that he does that with two goals in mind -- to teach players how to be positive influences as public figures and to make the state proud to have the Huntington Prep program.
"Out of all the other things going on throughout high school basketball, this is something positive that helps the state look good from a national standpoint," Fulford said. "The fact that we've lost two ESPN games already and we could lose three more is disheartening.
"The potential for this ESPN Rise Tournament is to have three more games televised. They have six spots filled and they are holding one for us, but they need the cooperation of Ray and the WVSSAC."
On Sunday, Huntington Prep played its final regular-season game - a 106-71 win over Capital City International (D.C.) at Wyoming East High School.
The team is now 28-2 and ranked No. 6 by the USA Today Super 25 and No. 4 by Hoopniks and MaxPreps -- a pair of websites dedicated to high school athletics.
"In three years, for us to be top five nationally, that's pretty impressive," Fulford said. "Imagine if we could get the state association to support us. We could build something that all of West Virginia would be proud of."
With the tournament essentially three weeks away, this is essentially the last week for the matter to be taken care of before ESPN will have to fill Huntington Prep's spot.
That means time on Huntington Prep's season could be running short, and Ray has the proverbial ball in his hands.
Fulford said that the game-winning shot is a layup.
"If he makes the call or sends an E-mail to them, we're in," Fulford said. "It's that simple."
On a team that is littered with high-major Division I talent, including Andrew Wiggins, the nation's top-ranked player in the Class of 2014, Ray could turn out to be the most important player yet.
The only question now is whether he wants to play for the team.
Grant Traylor is a sports writer for The Herald-Dispatch. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 304-526-2759.
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