10/01/2010 11:39 AM ET
New York players adjust to prep school
Only 90 minutes away, South Kent worlds different from city
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Maurice Harkless, Derrick Randall and Kadeem Jack play in a competitive league with top recruits. (Adam Zagoria)

SOUTH KENT, Conn. -- To get to this remote town from New York City, drive upstate on Routes 684 and 22, through Putnam and Dutchess Counties, cross the Connecticut border and wind past places like the Harlem Valley-Wingdale train station, Big W's Roadside BBQ and Ken's Bait & Tackle Shop.

Cross a covered bridge and head up Bulls Bridge Road. Then, a large white sign appears that reads "South Kent School -- Founded 1923."

There are no McDonald's, Burger Kings or Papa John's anywhere in sight. No concrete buildings or sidewalks. And the the bucolic prep school campus of 150 students doesn't include girls, either.

The trip only takes about an hour and a half by car from New York City, but for Kadeem Jack, Derrick Randall and Maurice Harkless, it might as well be another world.

"Actually, there's absolutely nothing out here," Randall, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound center from Brooklyn who committed to Rutgers, said Thursday. "It's different from when you're living in the city. There's a lot of things you can do. You can't do nothing out here."

"I miss my mother's cooking," added Harkless, a 6-foot-7, 185-pound wing from Jamaica, N.Y., who has committed to St. John's. "I love seafood, and they don't really serve seafood up here."

Jack, a 6-10 Rutgers-bound forward from Lefrak City in Queens can no longer get the large pepperoni pizza and wings he ordered every day on his way home from Rice High School.

"Nah," he said. "Just the food that the cafeteria has. The food's a little different from my mother's cooking."

Wednesday was an eventful night. Ray Pennucci, the assistant coach on the basketball team, took the players out on the town. "Going to Walmart is a big night," Pennucci said. "We stopped at Carvel. We got a couple of shakes. It was good. They were happy."

Hot spot for city players: Jack, Randall and Harkless are the latest New York City stars to leave the Big Apple for this school that is a member of the competitive New England Prep School Athletic Council.

Tuition for the current school year is $43,000, including room and board, but most of the basketball players receive financial aid.

The trend began two years ago when Kevin Parrom and Omari Lawrence, stars at St. Raymond's in the Bronx, abruptly left that school for South Kent. Lawrence ended up at St. John's and has since transferred, and Parrom moved on to Arizona.

Kelvin Jefferson, a former college assistant at Colgate, Stony Brook, American and Vermont and now the South Kent head coach, was the lucky recipient of those two talented players.

"The New York connection for me started with Kevin and Omari," Jefferson said. "They were the first two players from New York City that I got. They had a real successful season, obviously moving on to St. John's and Arizona and really that kind of got the ball rolling."

Last year, South Kent featured two more New York-area players in J.J. Moore of Brentwood, N.Y., and Russell Smith of Queens. Moore is now at Pittsburgh, and Smith is at Louisville, where he will miss eight to 12 weeks with a broken foot.

The New York City players can get back and forth to South Kent in an hour and a half on the train.

"It's easy for the guys to get home," Jefferson said. "They can come up here and concentrate on their books and their academics and play good basketball. They know up here they're going to get a lot of exposure and they're going to get better. As long as I do my job, hopefully I can keep that door open and we're going to continue to get those New York City kids because for me that's been a blessing."

Paying attention in the classroom: Harkless left Forest Hills High School in Queens to spend his senior season here. Randall was at Paterson (N.J.) Catholic, but that school closed in June, forcing its students to relocate. He was also too old to play high school basketball in New Jersey and would have had to leave anyway.

Jack could have gone straight to college from Rice, and he held scholarship offers from Rutgers, Miami, Arizona and West Virginia. Instead, he decided a year of prep school would serve him well.

At South Kent, all students must wear a shirt, tie, coat, slacks and shoes. They must be in their dorms by 11 p.m. And they attend chapel regularly.

All three New Yorkers say the adjustment wasn't easy, but now they find it easier to focus in the classroom.

"I'm able to focus on whatever they put in front of me because there's nothing else," Jack said. "Everything is right there. I just go sleep, come back, everything that they have here, I have to focus on it because it's my goal."

Said Harkless: "They have study hall hours here, and they take away your phone and you're just in your room with nothing to do so you have to work."

Of Harkless, Jefferson said, "He's quickly become one of the most respected kids on campus."

Pennucci, who also serves as an adviser to Harkless and Randall, said one of the benefits of being at a small school is the attention students get from teachers.

One night recently, Reverend Stephen B. Klots, who also teaches English, stopped by the dorm to speak one-on-one with Randall about W.P. Kinsella's novel, "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy."

"It's like something out of 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Pennucci said, referring to the scene in the 1982 movie in which Mr. Hand shows up at Jeff Spicoli's house to discuss American history.

Improving on the court: In addition to the change in academics, Jack, Randall and Harkless are also adjusting on the basketball court.

Each was among the best players on his previous team, and now they are all competing against elite players. The South Kent roster features four Big East-bound players, including Cincinnati-bound guard Ge-lawn Guyn, and junior guard Ricardo Ledo of Providence, R.I., who is being courted by Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

"Everybody here's good, so there's no days where I can just walk around and still be the best one on the court," said Harkless, one of two players so far committed to St. John's head coach Steve Lavin for 2011. "I have to actually play hard every day."

That wasn't always the case at his former school. "That was one of the things I wanted to get away from," he said. "I wanted to learn how to play hard every day. When I go to college I have to play hard every day."

Said Jefferson: "He leads by example. He's a quiet kid. That's probably what I need him to do, is be more vocal. But he's continued to do what he did this summer, which is quietly dominate. I need him to continue to lead and be a vocal leader, too."

The players also spend time every day in the weight room in preparation of a rigorous 30-plus game schedule that will take them to league games throughout New England and tournaments in New York, New Haven and Malvern, Pa.

Jack and Randall, two of six players committed to Rutgers head coach Mike Rice for 2011, frequently match up against one another in practice.

Having already developed a friendship from their trip to Turkey this summer with a New York City all-star team, they are now pushing one another to excel on the court.

"Obviously, Kadeem is a major talent, long, athletic, great skills," Jefferson said. "He's shooting it from the perimeter a little bit, finishing inside, putback dunks. He's doing a good job coming to work every day.

"One thing and I talk to him all the time, consistency. Coming and showing the same drive every day, every time he steps on the court at all times. And that's something he's got to get better at. As far as talent, he's just going to get better."

As far as Randall, Jefferson said: "What he does, he does great. Runs the floor, rebounds, physical play. What we're working on with him now is to continue to develop his post game, continue to develop his hands and his strength. And once he puts it all together, he's going to be terrific." For all three players, the adjustment to life at South Kent wasn't easy at first.

Now, said Jack, who seemed to be speaking for all three, "I made this like my home away from home."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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