Public or Private

By , Staff Writer
October 2009

A tough choice for high-school athletes

As one of the up-and-coming high school football prospects in the entire state, quarterback Connor Wood had a difficult decision to make after his sophomore season at Second Baptist High School.

Should he stay or should he go?

After all, there would be the transition of adjusting to an all-new coaching staff at Second Baptist, and certainly there was the prospect of greater exposure and stronger competition by playing at a larger public school. In the end, Connor chose to stay at Second Baptist, where he has continued to flourish on and off the field.

But what about other athletes who are faced with the prospect of choosing between a private and public school?

Former Second Baptist Eagle Aaron Thompson made quite a name for himself while playing high school baseball for a private school program. Thompson was a first-round, major-league draft selection in 2005 by the Florida Marlins.

“The biggest difference I see between the two, especially when it comes to football, is the number of kids in the program,” said Second Baptist athletic director Bill Lane, who was a football coach in public schools for 33 years.

“I do think the average athlete may have a better chance of playing at a smaller private school, just because we don’t have the bigger enrollment numbers of the public schools, especially when it comes to football.  So a kid who’s out there for the sheer love of the game might stand a better chance of getting to varsity and even seeing substantial playing time.  For the most part in football, you’ll see much stiffer competition on a week-in and week-out basis at the bigger public schools.”

But Lane is also quick to point out that there’s no shortage of great athletes on the private-school level.  “Look at Connor. He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.  Then in baseball, we’ve had four  players drafted by major league teams, including Ross Seaton and Russell Dixon by the Astros. Kyle Reynolds was picked by the Chicago Cubs, and Aaron Thompson is with the Florida Marlins. If you’re an outstanding athlete, the scouts are going to find you, regardless of where you’re playing, private or public school.”

The other key difference, says Lane, is the issue of residency.  “Kids can come from all over to attend a private school, but the costs can be restrictive, and the academic standards are at an accelerated level.” Students who go to public schools are typically zoned to attend a specific school, although exceptions are made for students who enroll in magnet programs within the same school district.

St. Thomas High School athletic director Mike Netzel, who is also one of the school’s baseball coaches, says there’s great opportunity for athletes who attend a private school like St. Thomas.  “In football, more so than any other sport, we have less depth than most public schools, so the opportunity to play at a high varsity level is better.  A kid has a greater chance to make an impact on the field simply because there’s less fish in the sea.”

Netzel isn’t short-changing the quality of play at the private-school level.  “I will say the gap is closing for schools like us and St. Pius when it comes to competing with the bigger schools.  Look how well we competed in our season opener against a Strake Jesuit team that plays in a large UIL Class 5A district.  Plus, we also have guys who’ll play at the collegiate level.  Our left defensive end Matt Wilson is being recruited by Alabama and Texas A&M.  I get just as many college scouts coming here than many of the public schools.”

When it comes to sports other than football, Netzel believes St. Thomas can compete with the best of them.  “I think we actually have some advantages in that we can schedule whomever we want.  For instance in baseball, our district is solid from top to bottom, while you can’t say that about all the large Class 5A districts.  So our schedule as a whole is as tough as any school because we make it a point to play the really good public schools. The same goes for basketball, where we’ve been one of the area’s best teams, regardless of private or public schools.

“Ultimately, of course, the biggest thing in all of this is academics.  At a school like St. Thomas, you’re going to get a more specialized approach to education, especially considering the classes are so much smaller.  It’s not a slap at the public school. It’s just what we’re designed to do.  We’re extremely driven to prepare kids for college.”

A 2007 graduate of Stratford High School, quarterback Andrew Luck is now throwing passes for Stanford University. Luck was one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits while playing for Stratford.

At Strake Jesuit, Crusaders head football coach Ron Counter calls his situation “the best of both worlds.”  Along with Dallas Jesuit, Strake Jesuit is the only other private school in the state allowed to compete for championships in the UIL’s public school leagues.  The exception for Strake Jesuit was made six years ago, and the Crusaders have excelled in all sports while competing against larger Class 5A programs.

“Our kids play at the highest level of competition, and then have the educational advantages that come along with going to a Jesuit school,” said Counter, who coached at four public high schools before coming to Strake Jesuit.   While at Strake, Counter has seen several of his players move on to play Division 1 college football, with former Crusader Chris Ogbonnaya even making it to the NFL.

Just last season, the Crusaders won the district football championship while competing against public schools from Alief and Spring Branch.  In addition, the cross country team won a second straight Class 5A regional championship, while the Crusaders basketball team was the No. 1-ranked Class 5A team in Texas before losing its only game of the season in the UIL 5A state semifinals.

“I think that’s especially noteworthy, considering what it takes to be a student at Strake Jesuit,” said Counter.  “Our kids have to pass a tough entrance exam just to enroll here.”  With such tough academic standards, Counter also scoffs at allegations by public-school coaches that the Crusaders recruit or seek out some of their best athletes.  “Whether they play sports or not, we get very few students who transfer here from other schools.  You have to earn your way into Strake Jesuit.”

With all that being said, Counter believes that kids will be excited to play regardless of the level of completion. “It’s still football,” says Counter.  “Small or big, public or private, there’s still the thrill of the game.”

Stratford football coach Elliott Allen wouldn’t trade the world of public-school athletics for anything. “It’s pretty special when you can take kids from a wide array of backgrounds and mold them into a team,” said Allen.  “The other thing I like is that the public schools are truly a fair draw, where you can only take kids from within your designated zone.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Allen.  “I think there are some great people at the private schools, but I really like our system best.  At a school like Stratford or Memorial, our academics are as tough as many of the private schools. But we also have an avenue of education for kids who may not be at that kind of level.  It’s just a great mix of kids on and off the playing field.”

You certainly won’t draw an argument from Houston Dynamo soccer-team president Oliver Luck, whose son, Andrew, was a star quarterback at Stratford and now plays for Stanford University. In addition, Luck’s daughter, Mary Ellen, is a current standout on the Stratford volleyball team.

“Even though I went to a private school growing up in Cleveland, one of the great things about Houston is that you can put your kids in a public school knowing you’re going to get a good education,” Luck said.  As for his belief in public-school athletics, Luck couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s seen at Stratford.  “I’ve been delighted with the quality of coaching, the skills my kids have learned and the overall facilities.”

Admittedly, Luck said, his son did explore the option of entering a private high school before ultimately selecting Stratford.  “Andrew definitely had the option of going to one of the area’s top private schools, but he just really liked Stratford.  It worked out really well.”

Back at the Wood household, Connor’s father, Jeff Wood, said Connor’s situation also couldn’t have gone any better. “We started at Second Baptist when we moved to Houston nine years ago, and we really wanted to stay at a Christian school. Head coach Mike Sneed, who won two state championships in the public schools, has brought great leadership to the program.  Last season, we had Brian Franshaw go to the Air Force to play football, and receiver John Doughtie was signed by the Colorado School of Mines.  Connor is excited about playing for Texas next fall.  So kids definitely get noticed here.

“Houston is a wonderful place for both public and private schools. Going to Second Baptist just happened to be the best path for Connor.”