The Curious Case of Arizona Prep Sports Academy
Arizona is becoming known for its high school football talent in a way that it never has before. At the turn of the century, Arizona produced one or two prospects per year that that were highly recruited to play at the next level. It was easy enough to track the progress of players like Bobby Wade, Shaun McDonald, John Beck, Terrell Suggs, Marquis Cooper or Richie Incognito, because not only were they the state's best talent 15 years ago, they were some of the state's only talent.
Things have changed.
Last year alone, the top 10 prospects in the state (according to Rivals) averaged nearly 13 Division 1 scholarship offers per athlete. For the class of 2014 that number was closer to 16. According to data compiled by FootballStudyHall.com, from 2008-2013, Arizona ranked 20th in the nation for football recruits sent to the FBS level. The skill and depth of talent in Arizona high school football is on a rapid ascent, but in-state opportunities to help develop some of that post-graduate talent is sorely lacking.
Sure, there's Arizona State, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona, but those are Division 1 FBS and FCS schools who recruit the best talent they can, regionally and nationally. Arizona has no Division 2 or Division 3 football options. Until the advent of Arizona Christian's NAIA football program, which launched last year and immediately built a roster of 80+ players (80% of which played their high school football in the state of Arizona), an aspiring post-graduate student-athlete who wanted to stay in state had only one option- Junior College.
That's where newly formed Arizona Prep Sports Academy in Tucson hopes to come in- but as I found out when researching the school for this profile, they have a long way to go to make sure they give student-athletes an opportunity to realize their post-graduate athletic potential while staying above reproach.
Most people understand the concept of a preparatory school. In fact, all schooling is essentially designed to prepare students for another level of schooling. Post-graduate prep schools, however, exist as an opportunity for aspiring college athletes to spend time after high school addressing issues that may have kept them from academically or athletically qualifying for the next level of competition. Prep schools that focus exclusively on basketball (at the post-grad and high school level) are far more common in the southwest region of the country than football, and as we've seen in recent years with schools like Westwind Prep, a school whose focus is athletics and supplemented by academics can run in to regulatory issues.
The initial idea for Arizona Prep Sports Academy may have come from a local offensive/defensive lineman, Garret Jones of Ironwood High in Glendale, committing to continue his post-graduate athletic career at Georgia Prep Sports Academy. Jones, a 6-7, 365-pound senior who has only been playing football since his sophomore year, hopes to give himself an opportunity to get to know the game better without starting the clock on his athletic eligibility- which can be done so long as a player takes under a full-time load of college level courses, and/or is limited to only addressing one core high school course during each semester at prep school.
Just a few weeks after Jones announced his post-graduate plans via Twitter, Chris Eaton of Gridiron Arizona reminded his followers on Twitter of Jones' decision. That's when, on March 17th, Eaton ended up engaging the founder and operator of AZSportsNetwork.com, Jeffrey Pichotta, on the topic of post-graduate prep schools. One day later, as part of the same conversation thread on Jones' decision to play for Georgia Prep Sports Academy, Pichotta wrote "I cannot say much yet but I have just been hired as HC here in tucson at college level-new school." On March 20th, Pichotta tweeted, "Breaking News: Arizona Prep Sports Academy will be fielding a 2015 Post Graduate Football team in Tucson AZ!" The next day, on March 21st, the domain ArizonaPrepSportsAcademy.com was registered by Jeffrey Pichotta.
Within two weeks, Jeffrey Pichotta, known as 'Coach P' from his days as a multi-sport head coach, including time with Baboquivari as head football coach and Santa Rita varsity girls basketball coach, was on the recruiting trail. At the suggestion of Trent Windsor, who assists APSA with football recruiting, Pichotta had 2015 Chandler High graduates and uncommitted offensive linemen Vinny Vital and Gewann Frazier down to Tucson for a visit. "Coach P called and left a message on April 6th, during the college basketball championship game," said Frazier. "We went went for a visit a few days later and was showed around Pima Community College, where our classes would be, as well as where they'd be practicing (Kino Sports Complex). They wanted to know as soon as they could, and I thought it over for two weeks and decided 'why not,' I want to get to the next level and maybe this is the way to do that."
With Frazier and Vital in the process of making the decision whether or not to get on board, and several other recruits in the mix to join them, Arizona Prep Sports Academy reached out to Chris Eaton of Gridiron Arizona to inquire about becoming a sponsor to increase their visibility, much in the way that Arizona Christian had done with the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Eaton agreed to a fee with their athletic director, Sharon Kaye, on April 13th, and planned to have updates on their recruiting as part of his website (At of the time of this story's publication, despite repeated assurances from APSA that they had sent the negotiated fee to Eaton, payment for the agreed sponsorship had not been made).
By late April, student-athletes from all over the state began announcing via Twitter that they were committing to play for a new prep school in Tucson, including student athletes from Joy Christian, Santa Rita, Marcos de Niza, Cholla, River Valley, Sunnyside, Pueblo, Palo Verde, Coolidge, Florence and Estrella Foothills. There were even players from as far away as Florida, like James Crider of Apopka and Tommy Lancaster of Marathon. It wasn't until Monday, May 4th when I saw Andy Morales of allsportstucson.com Retweeted an announcement that APSA would open their season on August 21st against Pima Community College that I became aware of the presence of a new post-graduate football option in Arizona, and searched to see if a story had already been written on their efforts to field a team. At that time, there were none that I could find, so I decided to attempt to tell the story myself. That's when I ran into a few unexpected and concerning issues.
The Arizona Prep Sports Academy Website didn't have an address for the school, nor did it have a listed football staff. The only point of contact listed on the website was "Sharon Kaye," who was listed as the athletic director. After searching for the domain name online and seeing that it had been registered to Jeffrey Pichotta, a search of "Sharon Kaye" in conjunction with Pichotta revealed that Sharon Kaye was actually Sharon Pichotta, listed as Jefferey Pichotta's spouse in online records. I attempted to call the school's number on the morning of May 5th to talk about their vision for the school, and left a message on the APSA voicemail. The outgoing message which APSA was receiving a "high volume of calls." In reading the school's listed mission statement and academic plan, I began to have concerns that some of the available information on the website may not have been in line with tradition postgraduate prep school standards, including:
An online application that asked for the student's, as well as their parent's social security numbers.
Several mentions that a student could help pay their tuition by signing a contract to pay APSA excess funding from loan or grant amounts used to pay their tuition at Pima Community College.
A guarantee that parents would receive written progress of their child's academic record at Pima, which according to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, can't be given to a third party without an adult student's written permission.
No mention of where SAT/ACT prep classes would be held.
No mention of the availability of online courses to help students address their high school GPA.
Mention of a discounted tuition rate for classes taken at Pima Community College in exchange for helping build their student base (Several messages left with Pima Community College's East Campus and Information Center went unreturned).
A semester in prep school can be spent taking a high school level course (though students are only allowed eight combined semesters to complete 16 core classes), a part-time college course load, SAT or ACT study courses, or weight and athletic training. Some students enter post-grad prep school academically qualified for the NCAA level, and are only seeking the competition and time to allow them to spend a year honing their craft. Others need academic assistance to help them qualify and compete while preserving athletic eligibility. It seemed, based on what APSA was outlining, that they only offered test prep courses and an opportunity to play football without wasting eligibility- everything else was up to the student.
My concerns led me to copy their mission statement and paste it into my browser. What I found was that the APSA mission statement, nearly word for word, also belonged to a school called Bridgton Academy in Bridgton, Maine. The Mission statement read:
"Bridgton Academy's mission is to provide a program for young men in a unique, one-year postgraduate environment to prepare for the rigors of college and beyond.
Bridgton Academy consists of an adult community committed to developing the whole student by providing a dynamic and challenging skills-based curriculum, a diverse campus life, and an appropriate extracurricular program to promote mental, social, and physical growth. The Bridgton Academy graduate should have grown through the postgraduate experience so that he enters college with improved confidence, values, judgment, life skills, and maturity to succeed."
The only changes APSA had made were replacing the name of the school altogether. As I perused the rest of Bridgton's website, the pull down tabs and verbiage seemed strikingly familiar to what I found on the APSA website. In fact, it turned out to be identical. A call to Bridgton's Marketing Manager, Nick LeBel, seeking to confirm that they had obtained permission to use Bridgton's outline and verbiage would turn up the opposite result. "As far as I know, I have never heard of Arizona Prep Sorts Academy," said LeBel, while looking through the website. "They even used our mission statement."
After further research, the information within "Academics" tab on APSA's site was the only portion that hadn't been taken, at least in part, from Bridgton Academy. Instead, it was a word for word copy of the Academics page from East Coast Prep. Dick Bell, Head Coach at East Coast Prep in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, didn't seem surprised to find out that information had been copied from his website. "That's not the first time someone has lifted information word for word."
(Note: Bell was right, a quick search of the verbiage on West Texas Prep and Mountain West Prep's website show sections, especially in the 'Frequently Asked Questions' section, that carry identical information from Bridgton Academy's website)
After learning more about the system APSA has set up, he was quick to point out concerns that they might not be a "prep" school at all, "It's not a prep school if they're using college courses, said Bell. "We use online courses that are accepted by the NCAA as high school core courses, which you can only take one of per semester, unless you have a documented learning disability. What they're doing is similar to what Gattaca is doing in New Jersey."
Gattaca is a private junior college in West Windsor, New Jersey that allows students to take courses at nearby Mercer County Community College while playing a junior college schedule football schedule. Student-athletes aren't required to take classes at all, but if they do, they have to maintain a 2.5 GPA or higher to be eligible to play football for Gattaca. The primary purpose of Gattaca is to help athletes move on to four-year athletic programs, and they only require one hour of team study hall per week. While students can use FAFSA funding to pay their tuition at MCCC, none of that money can be used to fund their football tuition at Gattaca. "The advantage of a prep school is that you don't use eligibility. The disadvantage of a prep school is that you can't use any form of government funding," said East Coast Prep head coach Dick Bell. "The FAFSA does not apply to any prep school. It's all out of pocket, because prep school is a luxury."
Bell said East Coast Prep students typically take one college course if they come in academically strong, and in rare cases two college courses, but always from the core because they can apply to most majors. When relayed the language on the APSA website requiring a contract for excess FAFSA funding to be paid over to APSA, Bell was concerned, "Not only do they steal from our website, which is a minor deal if you look at it. Now you're talking about the government. Now you're talking about fraud."
Regardless of whether Arizona Prep Sports Academy was essentially modeled after a true prep academy environment, or a private junior college was impossible to determine because I still had yet to hear back from several messages left for Jeff and Sharon. Knowing that APSA had successfully scheduled upwards of 10 football games for the upcoming season, I reached out to Donnie Yantis, head coach of Arizona Christian University for some perspective on how their two games against APSA ended up being scheduled, and what the benefit was for ACU to play in those games.
"It's normal in NAIA to help build enrollment with your football program." Said Yantis. "There are some high character student athletes who don't have a place to play, and Arizona Christian becomes that place. What we like to do is give the young men who aren't ready for the varsity games yet an opportunity to grow, improve, get playing experience, and get some film for us to see them in a college setting."
"(Pichotta) contacted me after we had a couple games scheduled with prep schools in El Paso, Texas. He researched those schools and saw that they were playing us, so he contacted us to see if we were willing to play," Yantis continued. "So we set a couple games at our place, where budget-wise it wasn't a humungous cost to us. This gives us an opportunity to play those kids on a lower budget. " Yantis also mentioned that there was a peripheral benefit to having an Arizona post-graduate football prep school on their schedule. "These are young men that we get to look at and recruit possibly, depending on their character and where they're at in their faith. It gives us an opportunity to look at more student athletes, especially from the Tucson area, We have kids on our roster from that area and that's a relationship we want to continue."
Yantis said that it's not uncommon for schools with large football enrollments, like military academies, to have several levels of prospects all working toward realizing their athletic goals, and that ultimately, a post-graduate prep school in Arizona would provide mutual benefits to ACU students as well, "It's a deal where it's good for the kids. They're practicing every day and going through the rigors of a college education, but they're not getting on the field. This gives them an opportunity to get on the field, and that's important for our program to grow, and for these young men who desire to play college football."
When made aware of the plagiarism issue, Yantis was still optimistic for the best possible outcome, but relayed concern for the students who had signed up to attend, "Protecting the kids and taking care of the young men that are putting their trust in that institution to further their education and get them ready for college is the most important thing."
Gewann Frazier, while skeptical when first contacted about the school, remained optimistic about the potential of readying himself for the next level at APSA, "When they first called I thought 'Do I believe this, or is it a kid playing a joke on me?' They said they will be working with us to get our test scores up, and that there'd be a study hall held every day at Pima to help us increase our test scores and increase our GPA's." Frazier said he wasn't told about the existence of high school level core courses "but I don't need those so maybe that's why they weren't mentioned to me." Frazier's plan is football, test prep courses, and college level studies at Pima, with his APSA tuition fully paid. "They pay my $10,000 tuition, and my monthly rent at the apartment complex that's setting aside places for us. I just pay for my classes at Pima as a part time student there. Why not take the year to mature here, get bigger, get better?"
One parent of a committed athlete, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they hoped this would help get their son the recognition they weren't able to earn in high school. "They said there would be certified teachers, helping with remedial material and life skills. I was told Arizona Prep Sports Academy would be all about football, and the ability to get the grades to be eligible, and to be noticed." When asked if that included high school level courses, the parent said they had only heard about college courses, "They said they have use of an old, unused middle school for test prep and possible certification courses, but the classes would be through Pima and they can only do 6 hours." When asked if they were told excess FAFSA funds could be used for APSA tuition, they weren't sure because they had accepted a scholarship, but they said they were told "Student loan funding could help cover the cost of the classes at Pima."
Through my conversations and interviews it was becoming more and more obvious that there would be clear benefits to having a post-graduate prep school program in Arizona, with dividends for students, coaches, and the overall burgeoning athletic culture in our state. In hopes of having my concerns about the plagiarism and potential financial aid and FERPA issues on the APSA website addressed, I hit redial and made my fourth call of the day to Arizona Prep Sports Academy. This time, there was an answer, from a man named "Joe" stating that I had the wrong number. Surprised, I hung up, and hit redial again. This time, it immediately went to the APSA voicemail, and again stated they were receiving a "high volume of calls." Assuming that if someone had at least answered, they were aware of my previous messages, I checked the website to see if it had been altered. Every page had been scrubbed except for the home page. I would learn later that representatives from Bridgton had gotten through, and also spoken to a man named "Joe," who described himself as a volunteer. After a follow up conversation between Assistant Head of School Sven Cole, and Athletic Director Sharon Kaye, the information on the site had been taken down.
Once the site had been taken down, I received a call from Jeffrey Pichotta. His explanation for all of the concerns on the website, plagiarism and otherwise, was simple: He didn't place the content on the website, and had been too busy recruiting to notice what was there.
"I hired a guy in Tucson that was doing some websites, and I didn't know what he was using," said Pichotta. "I got a call from Bridgton's people and they left a message saying that a lot of this stuff was from them. I told them that it was not meant to be that way and I took it down." Pichotta said that he gave the person responsible for building the website some examples for the purposes of a template, and Bridgton was included because it was where some Arizona prep athletes had gone for a post-graduate year, including Saguaro graduate Chris Counce, who is moving on to play football for South Dakota School of Mines, and Sabino graduate Kevin O'Brien, who played basketball for Bridgton and was named their valedictorian for the previous school year. "It was some guy from Craigslist," continued Pichotta. "I handed them information and told them to go to the different sites and look at what they're doing. We just needed something up there quickly because people around here don't really understand what a prep school is."
"We're going to have our own site with all our own information that pertains to us and has nothing to do with Bridgton or anybody else."
When pressed for the name of the individual or company he used for the website, Pichotta declined. When asked to forward the email confirming the Craigslist ad had ever been posted (There were no matching ads listed as active on or near the dates the site was built) Pichotta replied, "I don't understand what this has to do with my credibility," he said. "We took it down right away, and that's between us an Bridgton."
Pichotta stated that while he had access to the website's schedule page, which he updated himself as games were added to the schedule, he paid little mind to the rest of the information that was available, but wanted to set the record straight to anyone concerned with claims the site made. "You have to understand we spend countless hours with parents and students when recruiting kids and letting them know exactly what's going on. If there was any incorrect information on that website, which no longer is up, they got the correct information directly."
On having a discounted rate to Pima Community College coursework: "That's not true. If that was put up there it should not have been. There is no discount. If kids want to take courses at Pima, that's totally up to them. They don't have to do it, but let's say Joe Smith comes and wants to take courses to become a fireman. Well we don't do that part, so he'd have to go to Pima and do that, and if he qualifies for financial aid then that's what they'd do. We maintain very clearly that we are not Pima Community College and we're not associated with them at all."
On parents receiving progress reports: "That's not the case. I'm just letting you know that."
On signing a contract to offer up excess FAFSA funds: "That's not true. They have to come up with the money to pay us, and that's all there is to it. We don't tell them where that money has to come from."
Over the course of the last week, the Arizona Prep Sports Academy website has slowly been adding content to replace the content that Pichotta claims was placed on the website by an unnamed contractor. The mission statement has been updated to read:
"Arizona Sports Academy is committed to maintaining an effective academic and athletic support system for student athletes. It is our mission to create an environment that fosters academic, athletic, and personal growth for each of our student athletes. Arizona Prep's student athletes are taught the prerequisite skills to collegiate success, allowing them to succeed in the classroom, on the field, and in the real world."
Most of the site's content is now original, aside from the list of "necessary items," which remains copied from East Coast Prep. There's also still the concern of the online application to APSA asking for three social security numbers. Where there was once a name, Sharon Kaye, associated with the contact phone number, the number sits alone. The coaching staff page reads "Coming Soon!" In any case, Pichotta doesn't want his attempt to help kids realize their potential to play at the next level be sullied by some mistakes on a website.
"The mistake of what was put on the website is one small step (in the process)." said Pichotta. "I'll take responsibility for that. In the end, it's my responsibility to make sure nothing like that is on the website. Things were moving very fast. It wasn't supposed to be up that long, so I really didn't pay attention to it. I don't pass the buck. There was something on there that had been copied based on what Bridgton told me, then I took it down."
Pichotta was worried that a story about the mistake could hurt what he's attempting to build. "There's going to be 60-80 kids that would not have had a chance to play college football that are going to be a part of what we have going here, and we want to make sure this goes off without any problems. You can either steer this a good way or a bad way for us. What happened doesn't take away from what we're doing."
While I sympathize with Pichotta, I let him know that having a website with incorrect, plagiarized, and seemingly financially illegal instructions on it for six weeks while upwards of 50 local athletes, and some from across the country, pledged to be a part of this new program in hopes of extending their athletic opportunities was a legitimate issue. Athletes have been burned by post-graduate prep football programs in the past, including local athletes who relocated to play for one of these programs.
In 2009, Basha graduate Alvin Clark left to play for New Mexico Prep, a program started by Farasi Norman. Norman left the program mid-season, and Clark was out his opportunity, as well as the money it cost to be part of the program. Not only did Norman leave one prep school he started, he did it again in El Paso in 2014. While Farasi contends he did nothing wrong, and has ultimately rebounded to coach in the Indoor Football League, several kids were hurt in the process of him not being able to fulfill his obligations.
Pichotta contends that his intentions are noble, and that despite the rocky start, Arizona Prep Sports Academy can be the program Arizona needs to help develop its ever-deepening talent pool, and move these football players on to the next level. "We're already doing it. We have games set up and we have kids getting ready to come down here pretty quick. I don't want one mistake with the website to turn into something negative that will hurt the kids trying to come down here."