For complete coverage throughout the weekend from the Bill Hensley Memorial Run-N-Slam, follow Justin Kenny on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/jkenny_ns
Starting today, thousands of prep basketball players will descend on Fort Wayne for the Bill Hensley Memorial Run-N-Slam, one of the first big AAU events in the country this year.
It is an unofficial start to the summer basketball season, where everybody from five-star elite prospects to middle school players hit the court in various shootouts over the next few months.
It also begins a stressful time for area high school basketball coaches.
Summer AAU represents the best opportunity for "poaching," the unofficial term referring to players being plucked from one school district to attend school in another.
With Fort Wayne Community Schools' open-enrollment policy enabling a student-athlete to jump anywhere he or she wants to before his or her freshman year, area coaches are driven to be almost glorified baby sitters as they attempt to make sure the talent that should go to their schools actually lands there.
That also goes for players who are already at a high school and wish to transfer to another.
This weekend, Wayne coach Aaron Rehrer will watch a pair of future eighth-graders he wants to make sure end up in a Generals uniform.
The thought is the more visible presence Wayne has around those players, the less likely opposing coaches and players will be able to pull them away.
“When it is a high-profile kid that everybody knows about, there is always that chance that somebody may be throwing them a bone about how they would fit into their school (better),” Rehrer said. “There are a lot of influences throughout the city.”
It is rare to visit a message board talking high school basketball and not see threads accusing schools of recruiting a particular player. While some high school coaches could persuade players to transfer, a player's peers are the bigger influence the majority of the time.
“The biggest influence on choosing a high school to me would be players first, then coaches,” Rehrer said. “The players are all friends, and they are telling (each other) to go there or go here.”
A program's makeup also is a big factor. Is the team winning? Are there star players on the roster?
“Multiple kids in our feeder systems didn't come because of (Brenton and Bryson Scott) being here,” Northrop coach Barak Coolman said. “When you see kids (go elsewhere) it is a very individual decision, not focused on helping a team win.
“Unfortunately in this area, we have to follow 12- and 13-year-olds around to make sure they come to Northrop, and that's kids in your own feeder system.”
However much coaches try to keep an eye on the talented players in their feeder programs, they cannot be there all the time. Influences are numerous and often easily sway the opinions of teenagers.
“Kids are going to talk, that's what they are going to do,” North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq said. “If they ask our players about their North Side experience, they will talk about it.”
Coaches can identify which players in their feeder programs and high school rosters need extra attention in terms of making sure they stay committed to their schools.
Others are not filled with as much drama.
“I would say the majority of the … quality players in your feeder program, you don't know where they are going to show up until they get there,” Rehrer said.
Rumors are always rampant regarding which coaches meddle with another school's players and which don't. Typically, the more successful the team is, the more accusations fly.
“We've been accused of everything, but the reality is we haven't gone after anybody,” Khaliq said.
Coolman believes the wealth of transfers and players switching schools in Fort Wayne has hurt the programs as a whole. A FWCS high school has not won a state championship in boys basketball since Northrop in 1974. Since then, FWCS high schools have advanced to state just twice, Elmhurst in 2003 and Snider in 2009.
“(The transfer) mentality is what keeps Fort Wayne from competing at a state level,” Coolman said. “Instead of knowing where kids are going to be, I don't know which eighth-graders are coming to Northrop next year.
“That's why we can't compete with schools in Indy.”
Some coaches would like to see an end to open enrollment, or at least a rule in which student-athletes must sit out a year of competition if they switch schools.
“I'm not saying we've never gotten a transfer; everybody gets transfers,” Rehrer said. “But the hardest part of being around here is it seems to me that, not even that long ago, there was a lot more loyalty.
“I wish we had around here kind of like what a Norwell or Huntington has. They have feeder schools and they know who they have coming.
“We don't have that here … it makes it tough.”
So instead, coaches will continue to play the offseason game where a near-constant presence around their players is needed to secure the future success of the program.
“It definitely adds a whole level of stress that you don't enjoy,” Coolman said. “Unless you promise everyone the same stuff, and I don't promise anything, it's really a wait-and-see thing.”