Should high school stars go or stay?
Spring Grove's Eli Brooks is having another standout season in his senior year. Hear what his teammates and an opponent have to say about playing alongside and against the University of Michigan recruit.
Thirty years ago, James Brooks left Gettysburg for a bigger basketball opportunity.
He left to play for nationally ranked St. Maria Goretti High in Hagerstown, Maryland, featuring future N.C. State star Rodney Monroe.
Brooks made it only one year at the private school. He was homesick, but when he returned to Gettysburg High, he quickly realized something else: He became a better all-around player by handling more responsibilities for a team without nearly as much talent.
Years later, he preached a similar lesson to his son, Eli.
"If Eli knows I took the road to stay and compete and be more well-rounded, he already had a model of how this works out," James Brooks said. "And he's smarter than most teenagers and did the work to make it happen."
While Eli Brooks did stay at Spring Grove rather than play for an elite private high school, an increasing number of talented athletes are leaving their districts. They go for the promise of greater exposure and hopes to attract college scholarships. They go to hone their skills against recruited, top-end competition in practice and in games.
They also leave because the Internet and social media and the rise of AAU basketball have provided an alternative, some tangible landing place for furthering expectations and dreams.
They even go because families feel more pressure than ever to provide kids with every athletic advantage possible.
And yet those moves do come with concerns, according to school officials, coaches and others.
For one, public schools in some areas are feeling the squeeze of losing top-notch athletes from rosters already thinned by specialization. Susquehannock High, just a few miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, has been hit particularly hard by transfers because of its easy access to private schools in Maryland.
"I guess parents are looking for the magic pill and if doesn't happen, then what do you do?" said retired Susquehannock athletic director Chuck Abbott, now the YAIAA's executive director. "How many kids get Division I scholarships? If you're good enough they find you."
Certainly, colleges found Eli Brooks, who accepted a full ride at Michigan. They also figure to find Southern Middle schooler Jarace Walker, who some rank as one of the top seventh-grade players in the nation, as long as he continues to develop. His AAU participation guarantees that exposure.
And yet transferring is often about much more than that.
Do you improve most by playing with and against top talent?
Or by being forced to do more on the court and elevate those around you?
Brooks said he benefits from playing in both environments, leading Spring Grove to new heights while also playing with elite AAU talent in the offseason. He said he dreamed of becoming the Rockets' all-time leading scorer as a kid.
"I wouldn't have to rebound if I had two seven-footers on my team," he said. "One thing I learned (at Spring Grove) is to try to make everybody better on the court. It's tough to make a five-star player better. I learned how to deal with adversity, that's the biggest thing I learned staying at Spring Grove. Just becoming a better leader."
Eli Brooks said he initially stayed home to play because he wanted to remain close to friends and family. But there have been other positives, some unexpected.
A program that has not won big in decades suddenly warmed before catching fire the past two years. Varsity games that drew about 200 fans, on good nights, were squeezing in close to 2,000 for some home games this winter.
"People were embarrassed wearing Spring Grove stuff when I was coming up in the youth programs," he said. "Now, everybody is embracing it."
Even youth basketball participation in kindergarten through sixth grade in the area has doubled to 200 recently, James Brooks said.
And once the varsity team began winning, he noticed an entirely different atmosphere in area stores and restaurants. People wanted to talk to him and his players, wanted to talk basketball everywhere they went.
"That's bringing people together. The community has a common goal together. No matter what else is going on, they're going out on Friday night to support the basketball team."
Jarace Walker, a 6-foot-2 seventh-grader on Southern Middle School's ninth-grade team, is ranked among the Top 10 players his age in the country. And he can dunk the ball in games.