By Justin Jarrett | LowcoSports@gmail.com
Hilton Head Island could soon become a hotbed for high school hoops.
The Hilton Head Basketball Academy, co-owned by Cody Hopkins and Mike Rawson, has set up shop in Beaufort County with hopes of partnering with Heritage Academy and attracting top-level basketball talent from around the world.
Rawson previously operated 22 Feet Basketball Academy in Anderson, S.C., and hired Hopkins in April as the program’s head coach, but 22 Feet has since dissolved, with Hopkins and Rawson moving south and founding the HHBA.
“Within our first two weeks here we’ve had more positive feedback from what we’re doing than they got in probably two years in the Upstate,” said Hopkins, a longtime college assistant.
The intent of the potential partnership with Heritage Academy is for HHBA’s national high school team to play as Heritage Academy’s first-ever basketball team, and that relationship is critical to the HHBA’s operational plan. Competing under the banner of Heritage Academy – where the 12 players currently on the HHBA roster are attending classes – would allow the team to play other scholastic teams. Without such an arrangement, the HHBA would be classified as a club team and limited to competing against other non-scholastic teams like AAU programs, and NCAA rules would severely limit the time window during which coaches could evaluate and recruit the players.
“The obvious hurdle is we know that we’re different, but we think it’s going to be a good working relationship,” Hopkins said. “It’s important for us to show that we’re playing by a set of rules and have accreditation. You have to separate yourself from the pop up in a box prep school that’s happening all over the place right now.”
Heritage Academy Head of School Gloria Shoemaker said discussions between the two organizations are progressing, but it’s still unclear whether the school’s first sports team will be born.
Shoemaker called the proposed agreement “a unique school-team relationship unlike any other in the area,” in that the HHBA would set the schedule, hire the coaching staff, and recruit the student-athletes who would apply for admission to Heritage Academy and represent the school’s basketball team.
While the school-team relationship would be new for Heritage Academy, school chairman Andrew Summers said the overriding philosophy behind the collaboration with HHBA is the same as the school’s relationships with the area’s golf and tennis academies and soccer and swim clubs, which is to provide a non-traditional school setting for students who need flexible scheduling while pursuing passions ranging from sports to the arts.
“We’re the bricks and mortar school supporting these various academies with students who have a need for academics,” Summers said. “Our teachers are used to being flexible around students’ schedules. … We’re just there to provide academic excellence to students with a passion.”
In the meantime, Hopkins and Rawson are busy laying the groundwork for their organization to flourish in the Lowcountry. Hopkins has 12 players on the roster with two more coming in October, and the team has begun practicing at the Sand Shark Recreation Center on USCB’s Bluffton campus. The players also have memberships to the Buckwalter Recreation Center, where they can work out on their own, and they are housed at Bluestone Apartments in Bluffton, along with students from the International Junior Golf Academy who attend Heritage Academy.
Rawson’s vision for 22 Feet was to build a “boutique version” of IMG Academy, the Bradenton, Fla., training center that churns out top talent in numerous sports. He had begun the process of adding programs to complement basketball to his Upstate operation and said the group is open to adding other sports on Hilton Head if it makes sense down the road.
“(IMG) has always been the model,” Rawson said. “The ability to add sports, that would be a question for Heritage. … We want to focus on basketball now because it would be the first team sport that Heritage has ever taken on.”
Hopkins is quick to throw out comparisons to Montverde Academy in Florida and Findlay Prep in Nevada – names that are familiar to big-time hoops fans. The goal is to help players earn scholarships to play major-college hoops or become NBA draft picks.
The roster already boasts plenty of NCAA Division I talent, including Rawson’s sons – 6-9 forward Kyle Rawson and 6-11 center Kyran Rawson – and 6-7 swingman Dallaz Corbitt, a junior who is getting attention from SEC schools, including South Carolina. There’s also an influx of international talent headlined by Ameh Peter, a 6-9 big man from Nigeria.
Hopkins also has the beginnings of a schedule, including a trip to Rhode Island for the high-profile National Prep School Invitational from Jan. 31-Feb. 4 and two home tournaments – the Cecilia Hopkins Memorial Classic (named for Hopkins’ late mother) and the Hilton Head Hoops Classic. Sites for those events are to be determined.
Rawson said he hopes to play 10-15 home games and would like to spread them out at gyms throughout the area – at local high schools and USCB – to gain exposure throughout the region. He also hopes to host high school all-star games that could help local college prospects gain exposure.
“We could be the team that everybody gets to support because we’re not a threat to anybody,” Rawson said. “We can all benefit each other. It’s about building the community relationship.”