In 2012, Zena Edosomwan came up 30 points short of fulfilling his dream to play basketball for Harvard University.
The points weren’t lacking on the court; the two-time McDonald’s All-American nominee from Los Angeles was Harvard’s most touted recruit ever. He needed the points on his SAT score to be admitted to Harvard under Ivy League guidelines for athletes, he said in an interview.
“I only needed to get three more questions right, I think,” said Edosomwan, a six-foot, nine-inch, 245-pound forward. “I took it four or five times, maybe more.”
Encouraged by a Harvard assistant coach, Edosomwan enrolled for a post-graduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts. After boosting his grades there, Edosomwan entered Harvard and now plays as a freshman on its Ivy League-leading team.
Harvard owes much of its newfound basketball success, highlighted by four straight league titles and a first-round victory in last year’s NCAA tournament, to Northfield Mount Hermon, a 135-year-old boarding school whose alumni include actress Laura Linney and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Four ex-Hoggers -- the Northfield Mount Hermon nickname -- play for the current Harvard squad, including Edosomwan and co-captain Laurent Rivard.
Harvard’s relationship with Northfield Mount Hermon sheds light on how a university renowned for outstanding academic quality has become a basketball power. It has taken a page from the playbook of traditional college basketball strongholds, which have long guided prospects to prep schools for extra academic and athletic seasoning.
Northfield Mount Hermon is “a combination school that’s going to enhance your academic skills and get excellence in athletics,” said Jim Calhoun, who retired as head coach of the University of Connecticut basketball team in 2012 after having won three National College Athletic Association championships in 40 years of college coaching. “There aren’t many of them.”
The proportion of top college basketball recruits who attended more than one high school almost doubled to 52 percent in 2013 from 28 percent in 2007, according to a Sports Illustrated study. Four players on the University of Michigan’s team, this year’s Big Ten regular-season champions, enrolled from New England prep schools, including Northfield Mount Hermon. Carmelo Anthony, now a New York Knicks star, attended a Virginia prep school for a year to raise his grades and test scores and become academically eligible to play for Syracuse University, which he led to the NCAA championship in 2003.
In routing players through prep schools, “the Ivies and basketball programs in general are responding to market pressures,” said Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “They’re trying to minimize the risk of taking a player who’s not going to achieve academically.”
Harvard’s increasing prominence in basketball has at times raised concerns about balancing academics and athletics. In the 2012-2013 season, the basketball team lost at least two top players to a cheating scandal, and the academic progress of its players as measured by the NCAA declined.
“Harvard is becoming like other schools,” said Steven Goodman, an educational consultant in Washington who helps students gain admission to elite colleges and frequently works with student athletes. “It’s using its market position to attract not only the best academic students, but the best athletes as well.”
Harvard’s basketball players, including its ex-Hoggers, are strong students who do well in demanding courses, said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College. Rivard, the sharp-shooting co-captain from Quebec who graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon in 2010, is a computer science major. He and two other students are developing an application that allows users to make cash donations to college athletic programs via smartphones, Lewis said.
Like Harvard, Northfield Mount Hermon wasn’t always a hoops powerhouse. Its Ivy League prominence has coincided with the school’s rebound from financial struggles in the early 2000s that spurred it to sell one of its two campuses and reduce enrollment by about 40 percent. Last year -- led by Edosomwan -- the school team won the National Prep Championship for the first time. This year, it was voted the best prep basketball program in New England by readers of the New England Hoop News website.
Northfield Mount Hermon Coach John Carroll attracts players worldwide, with some coming from as far as Africa. As he built the program, “I was imagining a kid in Topeka, a high academic student who was good at basketball, and where he would go to school,” he said in an interview in his memorabilia-decorated office, where he also works in admissions. “We put a shine on kids academically and put them in position to perform athletically.”
Not just a pipeline to Harvard, Northfield Mount Hermon has sent 20 players to Ivy League teams in the past seven years. One current Hogger, Sem Kroon, has committed to play for Yale next year, and the Ivies are courting four others, Carroll said.
With 11 graduates in the Ivy League this year, Northfield Mount Hermon has become the No. 1 feeder for the eight-school conference, said Tom Konchalski, who assesses high school prospects in a newsletter for college coaches.
Carroll “targets kids who have an interest” in playing for Harvard, Yale and other Ivies, Konchalski said. “He tells them, if you’re a good student and have an interest in the Ivy League, we have a track record of sending kids to the Ivies. The Ivies will be aware of you.”
The school has also sown players throughout Division 1 basketball. Alumni Spike Albrecht of the University of Michigan and Mike Marra of the University of Louisville faced off in the 2013 National Collegiate Athletics Association Championship game that Louisville won, 82-76.
Ninety miles west of Boston, a wooded lane leads to Northfield Mount Hermon’s placid, manicured campus, with the stone, turreted Memorial Chapel at the center. There’s a farm where students grow fruit and vegetables, milk cows, and make apple cider and maple syrup. A speed limit of 19 miles per hour is prominently posted.
“I didn’t know places like it existed, where you can look up at night and see the stars,” said Matthew Brown, a Harvard junior guard from Barrington, Rhode Island, who spent three years as a Hogger. “I still like to go back there for the quiet and tranquility.”
Northfield Mount Hermon traces its roots to 1879 when Protestant minister Dwight Lyman Moody founded the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies and, two years later, on the opposite side of the Connecticut River, the Mount Hermon School for Boys. The two merged in 1971 to form one of the country’s biggest boarding schools, with 1,100 students on two campuses, according to the school’s website.
Board members began to feel that the cost of running both campuses -- including two libraries, two sets of dorms and classrooms, and running regular shuttle buses 4.2 miles over a bridge -- weakened the school’s finances, said former trustee Don Dolben. Some faculty also complained that the school struggled to attract enough high-quality students, he said.
Hoping to raise as much as $20 million, the board voted in 2004 to close the Northfield campus, said Dolben, who is chairman and founder of Dolben Co., a Woburn, Massachusetts-based real estate development company. Instead, the 2009 sale raised $100,000.
$121 Million Endowment
Still, the cuts helped stabilize the school financially and academically. It has an endowment of $121 million and accepts 30 percent of applicants, and gives financial aid to students in need, including athletes, officials said. In basketball, Northfield Mount Hermon has developed a “signature program” that gives it a measure of prestige, said Brian Fisher, a partner with Seattle-based AdmissionsQuest Inc., which helps students and parents shop for prep schools.
A shooting guard from Brooklyn, Carroll played a post-graduate year for the Hoggers before starring at Assumption College in Worcester. He then interned and worked as a broker for five years at Morgan Stanley before returning to Northfield Mount Hermon.
Carroll, who at 43 years old has a ruddy complexion and wiry gray hair, boosts his team’s profile with Twitter and Facebook posts about its accomplishments. He prefers to recruit prospects who are tall and versatile enough to play several positions but need to gain strength before going on to college ball.
During practices, he focuses on fundamentals such as passing, dribbling and shooting. He doesn’t use a whistle, because it distracts players from thinking on the court, and takes away from the fluidity of practices, he said.
He throws in unusual drills. He’ll tell players to run to the three-point line, and pass the ball between their legs and then heave up a long-range shot. Or he’ll challenge one player to take the ball and dunk over two defenders, said Evan Cummins, a Harvard sophomore forward who came from Northfield Mount Hermon.
“We want them to practice shots that are more difficult than they might take in a game,” Carroll said. “It makes a regular shot feel easier.”
Carroll began pursuing his vision for the program when he took over as coach in 2007. His predecessor, Bill Batty -- who coached Carroll at Northfield Mount Hermon -- had already sent many players to Division 1 programs and academically challenging Division 3 schools. Still, spots on Ivy teams had been infrequent.
Carroll became adept at understanding the needs of Ivy League schools. The longer he watched, the more he realized the conference offered a niche that he could fill. Traditionally at a disadvantage in recruiting because they don’t offer athletic scholarships, the Ivies were starting to attract better players with rich financial-aid packages.
At Harvard, parents with annual incomes of $180,000 or less pay no more than 10 percent of their incomes for education, and 20 percent of undergraduates’ families pay nothing, according to the college website.
“The timing was right for them to become more competitive in basketball,” Carroll said. “It seemed like they were wrapping their minds around the idea of having success without sacrificing academically and socially.”
The Hoggers get to know Ivy League campuses because they face their junior varsity teams regularly. On a Saturday afternoon in December, Carroll’s team dispatched a rag-tag Harvard JV team, 79-52.
Tommy Amaker, formerly head coach at the University of Michigan, one of the country’s premier basketball programs, arrived at Harvard in 2007 and spearheaded the team’s ascent.
Jeremy Lin, a 2010 graduate, became Harvard’s first NBA player in more than half a century, and now averages almost 13 points a game for the Houston Rockets. Despite some injuries, this year’s Crimson squad finished the regular season 26-4.
Harvard started a $6.5 billion capital campaign in September, in part to upgrade from 2,050-capacity Lavietes Pavilion -- at 88 years the second-oldest basketball building in Division -- to a new 3,000-seat arena.
Another sign that Harvard basketball has gone big-time was its involvement in the 2012 cheating scandal that resulted in one-year suspensions and withdrawals for dozens of students, including then basketball co-captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey. They weren’t available to comment on this story.
The cheating episode was primarily the result of a poorly run class, in which dozens of students didn’t understand the limits on collaborative work, rather than athletes taking academic shortcuts, said Lewis, the former dean.
Harvard basketball team’s score fell to 925 in 2011-2012 on the academic progress rate, which the NCAA uses to measure student-athletes’ achievement and retention. Had it remained that low for three more years, it might have disqualified the school from participating in the national tournament. Harvard said its basketball team’s APR score for the 2012-2013 academic year will be a perfect 1,000.
Edosomwan is flourishing on and off the court at Harvard even though, as a top basketball prospect, he wasn’t expected to go Ivy. In his senior year at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, California, he got scholarship offers from 39 Division 1 schools, including the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California, both perennially top-ranked teams.
When Harvard Coach Amaker made his pitch, Edosomwan, the son of Nigerian immigrants, didn’t attach much importance to the Harvard name.
“I didn’t even know what state it was in,” he said.
Edosomwan visited Cambridge with his mother, who owns a hair salon in Los Angeles, and his stepfather, a used-car salesman. He was smitten by the 3 1/2-centuries-old campus. In 2012, he became the first-ever high school basketball player in sports news service Scout.com’s top 100 to commit to an Ivy League school.
“Zena might be the trailblazer that gets more of the high-profile guys to take a look at the Ivy League,” said Dinos Trigonis, who coached him on an Amateur Athletic Union team in Los Angeles.
Amaker declined to comment directly on Northfield Mount Hermon’s basketball program, citing NCAA rules.
Athletes at Ivy League schools must meet or exceed a benchmark, called the academic index, which combines grades with standardized test scores. Edosomwan’s high school grades suffered because he took difficult courses such as Chinese, said Greg Hilliard, Harvard-Westlake’s basketball coach.
At Northfield Mount Hermon, Edosomwan averaged 12.4 points and 10 rebounds per game, Carroll said. Edosomwan said he earned a 3.6 grade point average. The prep school, which charges $52,200 a year, gave him financial aid. When he suffered a cut on his leg in practice and needed stitches, Carroll took him to a hospital emergency room, Edosomwan’s mother said.
He now has a 3.0, or B average, at Harvard. While he’s only averaging 2.9 points a game, his playing time has increased, and he led Harvard with 12 points in a Feb. 7 victory over Brown.
“He had a terrific first semester academically,” Amaker said in an interview. “And he’s adjusted to what we’re doing on the court also.”
Northfield Mount Hermon made his Harvard dream come true, Edosomwan said. “I failed at the beginning, but going from setback to comeback is a great thing.”