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Scotland basketball rises again with new program

It was called the Marshall Frey Gym on the campus of Scotland School for Veterans Children.

It's now the Alpha Fitness Gym, part of the new Scotland Campus project.

For several years, the gym was silent.

But once again, basketballs are bouncing, athletic bodies are flying, the nets are rippling and shouts are pinging off the walls. The gym has come to life again, and you can almost see those state title-winning Scotland Cadets reeling off win after win.

But this is not a newer version of the SSVC teams. This is the Scotland Performance Institute, a prep school, and while there are ties to the days of the Cadets, this is clearly a different kind of program.

SPI, as it is known, will play its first home boys basketball game Wednesday night at 7 p.m. against Mt. Zion Prep (6-0) from Baltimore, a team with six kids destined to play at the Division I level next year.

But Scotland has plenty of big-time talent, too. When these teams played on Nov. 12 in Baltimore, Mt. Zion Prep won only 76-70.

SPI is the brainchild of Isiah Anderson, a 1988 SSVC graduate whose heart never left the campus. He hopes his team will be well-received by the local community.

"We'd like to be a part of the local sports community," Anderson said. "It'd be nice to have people follow us. I think people who appreciate good talent, and who'd like to see some guys who may be playing on TV next year, would like to watch us."

SPI will also host a game on Monday, at 7 p.m., against Coastal Academy of New Jersey. Scotland has played five games on the road so far and has a 1-4 record, but all of the losses have been by six points or fewer.

Considering that Scotland Performance Institute was nothing more than an idea in Anderson's head until May, it's remarkable how far it has come in the seven months since.

"I'm shocked at the talent we have acquired in that short time," said Jareem Dowling, SPI's head coach. "And we've already had 10 kids come visit the campus for next year."

SPI is a prep school. Ten of its 12 players are in their first year out of high school graduation. The other two are a junior from Russia, Mark Tihonenko, and a senior from Mali in Africa, Chiekna Demble.

Those two are the players who have drawn the most interest from college coaches. Tihonenko is 6-foot-8 and Demble is 6-10.

Dowling said that Tihonenko's suitors include heavyweights UConn, Iowa State, Baylor, Maryland and Texas. Demble is being looked at by Georgetown, Maryland, Pitt, UConn, LSU, Iowa State and Baylor.

Anderson said, "It's not easy to get big-time schools like that to come here, but if you have good 6-9, 6-10 guys, they will."

And that is the point of SPI. It takes kids like Tihonenko and Demble, who are still developing, and makes them into high-level college recruits. And it also takes kids who are out of high school and makes them into desirable recruits, too.

"We're a training academy, and we're not just about basketball," Anderson said. "We like getting kids who maybe are 6-5 and played center in high school and didn't get many looks. They may need a year to develop other skills or to get stronger. And having a full-time coach makes a difference, too."

Dowling is a native of the Virgin Islands, and he's currently that nation's U-21 team coach, and an assistant with the senior team under Sam Mitchell, the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He played at Cecil Junior College and at Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Then he decided to get into coaching, and he's been at Cecil, Slippery Rock, Morehead State and Southern Mississippi. He happened to be friends with Diallo Daniels, a former teammate of Anderson, and when Daniels heard Anderson needed a coach, he made the connection.

"I coached and recruited against Diallo back in the J.C. days," Dowling said. "He talked to Isiah and when Isiah offered me the job, it was a no-brainer. I have a daughter in Baltimore and I get to see her every weekend now."

With a coach in place, plus a pair of assistants -- Jon Valeriano and Josiah Whitehead, both former players of Dowling's -- Anderson next had to come up with a roster.

"I am really surprised where we are at this point," Anderson said. "But you don't know how many people you know until you shake the bushes."

Dowling said, "It was mostly just word of mouth, but Isiah has a lot of connections."

And they are wide spread. SPI's roster includes players from Russia, Mali, Serbia, Argentina and Canada, as well as New Jersey, Harlem, Delaware, Atlanta and Maryland. At least two other players, Jawan Gray and Na'Quan Council, are getting Div. I looks and several others are possible Div. II players.

And there are stories, too. Tihonenko's father played on the Russian national team with former NBA great Arvydas Sabonis. Jamon Bivens' mother was an R&B singer in the group Xscape, and his uncle is R&B artist R. Kelly.

The players, who live in a dorm on campus, began working Sept. 9. On a typical day, they do strength training and skills for three hours in the morning, after lunch they attend class, and then practice from 4-6 p.m.

Dowling said, "We really take care of the guys. In fact, I'd say we do that better than we did at three of the college jobs I had, with with scholarship players."

Anderson is pleased with the progress of SPI's short life, and if that success continues, he could see expanding into maybe girls basketball or other sports.

"This is the perfect place. There is a sports legacy here," Anderson said. "I grew up here, and it meant the world to me. To be able to share that indirectly with these guys has a lot of emotional value."