Staying back to get ahead in athletics is an old and largely accepted practice.
In college, it’s called redshirting. At the high school level, post-graduate years at private schools allow Division I scholarship hopefuls to improve their athletic profile or academic standing.
But for elite high school basketball players looking to gain an extra year’s worth of height, strength and schooling, a growing trend is called “reclassifying,” registering with a graduating class later than their original.
Some players are reclassifying as early as middle school, staying back a year to gain an age advantage throughout their basketball careers. Others are making the move in public high schools, where Maryland rules stipulate a player cannot play a season after turning 19 or after four years of high school basketball at any school at any level.
At a recent weekend high school showcase at Upper Marlboro’s Wise High School, two local standouts who elected to go the reclassification route were on the same floor, and their experiences illustrate the spectrum of outcomes to which the trend can lead.
DuVal senior Mike Cunningham, who reclassified from the class of 2013 to the class of 2014 after enrolling at DuVal last school year following his junior season as Paul VI, was ruled ineligible before the season and thus could only watch his Tigers teammates lost to perennial private school power Riverdale Baptist. Cunningham’s one season at DuVal and two seasons with Paul VI were preceded by a year of junior varsity basketball as a freshman at Carroll, so Prince George’s County athletics and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association ruled he had exhausted his four seasons of basketball eligibility.
A few hours later on the same Wise court, Potomac (Md.) guard Randall Broddie shot and slashed his way to 28 points against top-10 staple O’Connell. Broddie reclassified from the class of 2015 to the class of 2016 when he transferred to the Oxon Hill school after playing his freshman season for St. John’s. Broddie, who is listed as a sophomore despite playing one season at St. John’s before transferring to Potomac in time for last season, will have one more year of eligibility in Maryland public schools, but he will have to transfer to a private school if he wishes to play as a senior during the 2015-16 season.
“When I was thinking of reclassing, I wasn’t thinking of graduating from [Potomac] because I knew what [the decision] would come with,” Broddie said. “I’m just trying to get scholarships and get into college.”
Prince George’s County Athletic Director Earl Hawkins said in December he’s seen a small increase in the number of eligibility issues related to players transferring in with a few seasons of basketball already under their belts, which he speculated could be attributable to the economic downturn, which made post-graduate years at private schools less affordable for some families.
But Hawkins was adamant that public schools “don’t reclassify.”
“Whatever [transfers] have on their transcript, our registrars and guidance people put them in the classes they need to [graduate],” Hawkins said. “I’ve heard it where parents want to put their kids back to the previous grade for athletic reasons. We don’t do that.”
Broddie, who openly refers to his transfer from St. John’s to Potomac for academic reasons as “reclassifying,” is listed as a sophomore despite playing for the Cadets, but is taking the 11th grade classes dictated by his transcript.
Cunningham wasn’t looking to reclassify when he left Paul VI, where he experienced challenges common among players who leave neighborhood schools for private schools: long commutes that reduce time needed for challenging academics, and limited playing time.
But Cunningham encountered an issue with the release of his junior year transcript, which left him without the necessary credits to move into his senior year at DuVal. Because Cunningham, 18, would be age-eligible to play this season, his family, and Tigers Coach Lafayette Dublin, who was in his first year, believed he would be eligible for two seasons. According to Cunningham’s father, no one in the school’s administration gave them reason to believe otherwise until this August, after he’d played an entire season with the Tigers and participated in summer league.
Cunningham works out with one of the DuVal coaches each morning before school, and he heads to a different gym to work out after school.
“He’s lost a lot of college interest,” Robert Cunningham said, but “there are still some [Division I] schools that know what he can do and are still on board.”
Broddie has garnered interest from Maryland, Georgetown, Cincinnati, Xavier and others. He says he hopes he can use his remaining two years to develop physically, as well as in his on-court leadership.
University of Maryland assistant basketball coach Dustin Clark said whether or not a player has reclassified or done a post-graduate year “isn’t a part of our evaluation criteria” for recruits, though he says the Terrapins’ coaches always know how old a target is and how many years he will play in high school.
“From our perspective, there can be positives to [having the extra year],” Clark said, emphasizing that players without the extra year have had success, too. “They can be more mature than the kids they compete against. And that carries through: It’s no coincidence that some of the better college basketball teams have older guys.”
While rules mean age differences should not factor in the public school game, they can affect private school play. The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference does not allow players who turn 19 before Sept. 1 or have played eight semesters of high school basketball to compete. It does permit students who have played seasons of public school to transfer and enroll in a different grade, meaning they can play an extra season if they are still age-eligible. At schools unfettered by strict conference guidelines, like local power Clinton Christian or nationally known basketball factories like Oak Hill, students can play at age 19.
Despite the MPSSAA’s rules, Hawkins says he still gets inquiries from families hoping to “reclass” in public school. As Cunningham’s situation reveals, players, coaches, and families don’t always fully understand the rules, and Hawkins says it’s up to each school’s administration to check into each transfer.
The athletic director “contacts the previous school, finds out how many years they played, find out everything they can,” Hawkins said. “We even use resources online, such as MaxPreps .”
Still, speculation about the age of area players is a common topic of chatter on the bleachers of area high school gyms, both private and public.
Eleanor Roosevelt Coach Brendan O’Connell compared the issue of reclassifying in public school to residency issues created when coaches and players lie about addresses to craft winning high school teams.
“In public school you’re not allowed to do it” he said. “I know that it happens. . . . I would think it’s an issue in the county and the state they’re trying to address.”
But O’Connell, who coached the Raiders to last year’s Maryland 4A title, said he thinks players who play an extra year of high school basketball gain an advantage.
“If it didn’t work, people wouldn’t do it,” O’Connell said. “For 14 to 18-year-old boys, those are prime years where they develop physically and athletically.”