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How Knox has become a superpower in boys basketball

Knox School's head coach Walter Townes speaks with

Knox School's head coach Walter Townes speaks with his players during practice at The Knox School in St. James, New York on Thursday, Jan 5, 2017. The Knox School boys basketball Prep team. Credit: Steven Ryan

When Walter Townes, athletic director of The Knox School, scrutinized the regional prep basketball landscape two years ago, he saw a gaping hole.

If local student-athletes wanted to play for a boarding school, they by and large left the area. There was a dearth of options in New York City and Long Island while New England and New Jersey seemingly brimmed with sprawling campuses and hoops teams that routinely churned out Division I players.

“Why do they have to go all the way up to New England to get a great education in a prep school environment?” Townes thought.

Townes already had been the private school’s basketball coach and athletic director for three years when he began pondering that question earnestly in the spring of 2015. For Knox, the answer seemed to lie in the level of basketball competition — certainly not the campus itself.

Surrounded by massive properties and mansions to its north, west and east and Stony Brook Harbor to its south, Knox lies on 40 green acres in St. James. Its enrollment of 121 leaves students, who hail from more than a dozen countries, with a 6:1 ratio with teachers, according to the school’s website.

“It’s beautiful,” Townes said, “but we’re 25 minutes from the Long Island Expressway, so you’re going to a land that time forgot.”

In the spring of 2015, Townes and Head of School Kristen Tillona-Baker formulated a plan to change that: They decided to create a prep-level basketball team, coached by Townes, with the goal of attracting elite local talent and simultaneously growing Knox’s brand.

Besides competing locally in the Private School Athletic Association with a traditional high school varsity team, coached by former McDonald’s All-American Majestic Mapp, Knox would have a prep-level team that would traverse the Northeast in the 2016-17 season and eventually the country.

“The school has been in existence for a long time,” Tillona-Baker said, “and we really just needed to put ourselves on the map for something.”

That’s what they hope the prep team will do.

Prep rosters can include postgraduates, students who graduate from high school but, for reasons ranging from under-recruitment to grades, elect to spend an extra year in a secondary school before enrolling in college.

“I don’t want to have guns for hire,” Townes said of the school’s dual teams. “I want to really have a farm system with a very good high school team that will move on up to our prep team.”

So far, the program appears headed in the right direction. The Falcons have blended local postgraduate transfers like Tyler Hammond (Longwood) and Kareem Holmes (Bay Ridge Prep) with foreign stars Omar El-Sheikh (Egypt), Laurynas Stonkus (Lithuania), Nik Cazacu (Greece), Wassef Methnani (Tunisia) and Mohammed Jannedi (Tunisia) to produce an 8-3 record early in their 32-game slate.

“I think it’s working,” Tillona-Baker said. “We’re getting a lot of notoriety. We have a lot of support. Our kids have a lot of great things happening.”

Cazacu has verbally committed to Trinity College. Others have drawn Division I interest from the Patriot League and America East, as well as Hofstra, Fordham and Marist.

There is still room for growth, but just reaching this point was not easy.

A prep team such as Knox’s cannot schedule normal Long Island varsity high school teams, who are forbidden by the New York State Federation to compete against preps,. So, with no other prep teams on Long Island, Knox’s preps must play a regional or national schedule.

The New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) denied Knox’s bid for entry, so Townes tapped his connections from more than two decades coaching in the college ranks to assemble a 32-game schedule. Tillona-Baker said the school doubled its athletic budget from 2015-16 to 2016-17, and accommodating the prep team’s travel expenses was “a big piece” of the increase.

But before Knox could compete against elite prep schools such as Connecticut’s South Kent, Townes first needed to recruit talented players who would meet Knox’s stringent academic standards and mesh with the small community.

Once admitted, prep players take SAT/ACT, AP and college-level writing courses, according to the school’s website. Tillona-Baker said student-athletes are athletically ineligible for a full term if they register even one C-minus in the previous term.

“Finding that whole package was a real challenge,” Tillona-Baker said, “because you have many great players that didn’t have the academics behind them to work with us or they were a good player but they really didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak, of our campus.”

Tillona-Baker said cost of attendance ranges from $11,950 for day students to $48,900 for seven-day domestic boarders to $56,300 for international boarders.

She said the school distributed about $800,000 in aid last year but did not provide a total given to the basketball team. All aid is need-based, she said, so situations also surfaced where a talented player who did not meet financial aid requirements opted for a different school.

Townes and Tillona-Baker said they understand Knox will not become an elite prep program overnight. As an assistant coach at Dartmouth, Townes recruited players from the New England prep schools. He remembers witnessing Brewster Academy and New Hampton elevating their programs from the ground to among the most recognizable in the region.

“They all started the same way as Knox,” Townes said. “They weren’t great in the beginning. I think we have what it takes to do it.”

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