How Marin’s Private Schools Attract the Best Athletes
June 6, 2022
I walked into the gym only to see a high school kid dominating a 7th grade CYO basketball tryout. He used flashy dribbles, directed traffic like a seasoned veteran, and scored effortlessly. Not surprisingly, this high school kid had a tremendous size advantage over the other nine players on the court. On a high school court he might be guard height, but on this court he was Shaquille O’Neal. His body was much more developed than the other scrawny middle-schoolers he was playing with.
I turned to my teammate who was helping out with the tryout and asked why they let a high school kid into a game like this. “He’s a 7th grader,” he said. I was stunned. This kid looked like someone I might see on the court as a 17 year old, and here he was in 7th grade.
I was now even more impressed with what I was seeing. As I watched this kid dominate his competition, I thought about the future of San Rafael basketball. Could this kid be the future? Could he be the one to lead a team to an MCAL championship ending a drought that has stood for over a decade? Maybe it was too early to predict that he could play Division 1 basketball, but the potential was there.
“He’s probably going to Branson,” said Brett Mitchell, head coach for SRHS basketball. My spirit was killed. At first, I was a little disappointed in the kid himself. To me, San Rafael seemed like a perfectly fine place to play basketball and I felt offended that a young athlete decided against it. What was it about other schools that attracted young athletes and what was it about San Rafael that didn’t? Should I really think less of an athlete for choosing private over public?
There were once rumblings about a team USA youth baseball player coming to San Rafael, but we lost him to another school as well. The frustration seemed to be never-ending. It seemed that many young athletes felt going private gave them the best chance to develop their athletic ability and reach the next level.
It seems like private schools have dominated the Marin County Athletic League (MCAL) for as long as any current high-schooler can remember. Branson basketball is the favorite to win the MCAL trophy pretty much every year. The same goes for Marin Catholic football, who have birthed successful college and NFL quarterbacks like Jared Goff and Spencer Petras and just this year won the state title for their division. This same pattern continues across several sports, both mens and womens.
Many question if public schools are truly on a level playing field with private schools when it comes to building athletics programs. Public school sports teams are only supplied with the student-athletes that live in their school district while private schools have the ability to bring in athletes from wherever they want. Any existing financial barrier that would incentivize a student to go to a public school can be completely bypassed through distribution of financial aid and scholarships to the families of student-athletes.
Public school budgeting also means that private schools have more freedom to put money and resources towards athletics programs. “I think MC (Marin Catholic) has a larger staff of people who are dedicated specifically to sports,” said Franklin Smith, who coached baseball at San Rafael until 2019 and currently is working as a coach at Marin Catholic. Smith feels that San Rafael Athletic Director Jose De La Rosa does an “excellent job based on the resources he is given,” but also acknowledges that it is hard for San Rafael athletics to match up with MC which has a whole team of people who oversee the athletics department. Private schools have the ability to finance more positions in the athletics department which keep their programs operating at a much higher level. “Those extra bodies truly help,” said Smith.
Funding also means that private school athletes don’t have to worry about fundraising for their programs. San Rafael athletes are all too familiar with having to go door-to-door and sell popcorn, coupons, cookies, and more to support their programs. “I’ve never had to do that and I’ve never heard of any of my teammates having to do that,” said Marin Academy soccer player Alex Marmolejo in reference to fundraising for his program through sales.
In just his second full year working as a Marin Catholic varsity baseball coach, Franklin Smith has already seen his team win an MCAL championship trophy. When asked what sets a program like MC apart from the others, Smith attributed the success to “reputation and preparation.” These two things seem to be directly correlated. “Athletes need to feel challenged daily to feel like they are reaching their full potential,” said Smith. This challenge could come through preparation, which also would directly impact the result on the field or on the court. The only way to build a reputation of a program is to win.
An athlete seeking the challenge described by Smith might not find it at San Rafael. “When I was at SR, we asked for a strength and conditioning coach and weren’t given one,” he said. “MC offers open weights for all athletes before and after school.” Smith also recalls instances where he showed up at MC for 6:30 AM lifting with the baseball team only to find that the football team was already running plays in the dark.
“I think a lot of that comes with the culture,” said senior Jack Healy, a 3 sport varsity athlete at San Rafael. “When those guys win, the athletes that come in behind them are willing to listen and work to reach that level. They have people who have been there before, so they know how to get there again.”
Young athletes are by nature going to be attracted to a program that offers a better environment for them to succeed. “It was definitely interesting to me,” said one member of the Branson track team when asked if facilities were a factor in deciding where he went to school. “I felt like the effort they put into their weight room showed that they really cared about maintaining a successful program.”
He also felt that these facilities offered more to him as an athlete. “Going to Branson gave me a quality place to train that was also in a convenient location. I don’t have a ton of time to go to other places to train, especially in season, so if I was at a public school I might be stuck working with lower quality equipment.”
This issue is not specific to Marin. All over the country, debate is sparked around the advantage that private schools have over their public school competition. Many top tier athletes transfer from public schools to private schools citing development as their reason. When you think about it, this reason is quite practical. Student athletes want to put themselves in the most competitive environments. The best way to show you are legit is by performing with a high level of competition.
In the past, CIF strictly prohibited athletically motivated transfers, which are transfers carried out for athletic reasons. Transfers were only valid if a family could indicate a change of residence into the area of the school that they were transferring to. In 2017, 7 out of 10 CIF sections voted to amend the transfer rules. The amended rules now allowed students to transfer because of athletics and without their family having to indicate a change of residence. A change like this can be carried out during any year of high school with only a brief sit-out period restricting the process.
Athletes are transferring to better programs to play with their club teammates or to play under certain head coaches. In some areas of California, top programs have seen their entire starting lineups being filled by transfer students, many of which are even coming from out-of-state. CIF has always emphasized the importance of prioritizing school first and athletics second, but their new policies do not reflect their sentiment of the past.
The North Coast Section, which encapsulates much of Northern California’s coast and houses all of the Marin County Athletic League schools, was one of 3 sections to vote against these new transfer rules. In Marin County, the transfer issue has cost several public schools talent.
“When I was coming into high school, I heard that we had a pretty promising basketball player,” said Terra Linda High School freshman Dylan Kraus. “By the time I was actually playing basketball, he had transferred to a prep school to play.” Terra Linda basketball finished with a 4-22 overall record this season. Kraus thinks they really could have used a player of this caliber. “It was frustrating to know that he wasn’t playing on our varsity team. He could’ve acted as a role model for the freshman and JV levels.”
It’s athletes like these that can inspire their teammates to get out of bed early for workouts. As Franklin Smith said, “reputation and preparation” set a great program apart from the rest. A player like this could serve as a leader and a culture-builder like those Smith coaches at Marin Catholic.
Kraus also thinks that watching a great player at Terra Linda would convince many to sign up to play there. “Watching him score with ease and make flashy plays could’ve motivated younger kids to get involved with the program. They would look up to that player and want to follow in their footsteps.”
In the past few years, SRHS has made some positive changes to attract young athletes to their programs. “The new stadium is super nice,” said Alex Marmolejo. “It’s a privilege to play there.” The stadium has also hosted several championship games for other top programs including the MCAL championship for mens and womens soccer as well as the NCS semi-final football game between Marin Catholic and Escalon.
“I think the stadium definitely gets your attention,” said one SRCS parent. “At the very least it could get a young athlete to consider San Rafael as an option.” This truly could be all it takes to get SRHS moving in the right direction. San Rafael isn’t going to be able to change the narrative around their programs immediately. This is going to be something that is a result of a series of changes over time.
My brother, Hayden Hattenbach, plays Division 1 baseball at UC Santa Barbara and is one of the very few who have graduated from San Rafael and gone on to play Division 1 sports. He was very involved with travel baseball in middle school and knew some coaches that were interested in him playing at a private school, but decided to go to San Rafael to be with the friends that he had known growing up. “Most of my development happened at outside programs,” he told me. “It was tough for me to have to get up on a Sunday and drive two hours to train with other competitive athletes.”
In the eyes of my brother, San Rafael athletics lacked passion and direction. “I feel like in high school many people just showed up and played and when they tried to get better it was just aimlessly hitting in the cage or putting up shots without thinking too hard about what they were doing,” he said. “When I was a sophomore on varsity it would’ve helped me a lot if there were seniors going down the college path who were working out and trying to develop. That would bring that energy to the team instead of everyone doing it on their own.”
What my brother has experienced parallels directly to the accounts of other athletes I talked to. The facilities of other schools allow for their athletes convenient access to challenging workout programs where they can develop without having to go somewhere outside of school. My brother found working out difficult, while the private school athletes saw their improved facilities as a perk of not choosing a public school. What my brother told me about development at San Rafael also aligned with the perspective of Coach Smith. “There are public schools that do a great job with the development and providing resources for athletes, but in my experience neither San Rafael City High Schools do so,” said Smith.
Although it seems that the resources of private schools have made them more successful at building interest in their programs, it can still be done successfully by public schools. Right here in Marin County, Sleepy Hollow Aquatics has built a program that sends many athletes to Archie Williams High School. Historically, Archie Williams water polo has been one of the programs that dominates the MCAL and goes against the trend of private schools dominating athletics.
“There’s nobody giving you any direct incentive to go to Archie,” said Finn O’Neill, a SRHS senior and SHAQ water polo player. “But, the program does give you exposure to coaches and athletes that are connected to the school which could incentivize someone to go there.”
San Rafael High could benefit significantly from building a program like this. Finding common ground between club and high school sports builds interest in a school without breaking any CIF recruiting rules.
It is impossible for administrators to directly work with these programs because they are not allowed to involve the school with club sports, however there is no enforcement on individual coaches having outside affiliations and simply drawing interest to the high school through familiarity. Additionally, for a prospective student athlete, playing for a high school coach in a club sports environment would give them a test run of how that school’s program would be run. If a basketball player had experience playing under a club team run during the summer by a coach, that player would now get a feel for what it would be like playing under that same coach during the high school season. Programs like SHAQ could be built for any varsity sport at San Rafael High.
With this, my mind returns back to the young standout basketball player I saw that day before practice. I think of him weighing his options when making his high school decision. It was unlikely that any high school coaches would reach out to him first, because this would break the rules. Plus, they wouldn’t have to. He would surely talk to the same group of athletes that I talked to and look into the same programs that I did.
Certainly he would be familiar with the history of Branson basketball: the countless MCAL championships they had won and the constantly growing pool of their athletes that went on to play college basketball. Certainly he would want to celebrate adding to a trophy case, not celebrate breaking even for the first time in 11 years. The case of going to a private school made perfect sense to me. I’m sure it made perfect sense to him too.
In general, going public is almost seen as underachieving. In the local athletics community, there is little to no enthusiasm about playing at a public school. “I think it’s an easy decision if your kid is an athlete,” said Franklin Smith. “It would make the most sense to send them where they can be most successful. In my opinion that’s a school like MC or Branson.”