Apr. 19—"Go West, young man," was the message often credited to newspaper editor Horace Greeley regarding the expansion of America in that direction in the 1800s. The concept it related to was known as "Manifest Destiny."
As far as two young Toledo high school basketball players are concerned, a version of that concept applied to them when they ventured more than 1,900 miles to Arizona to create recruiting opportunities for themselves.
Approaching his senior school year at Rogers High School, Jamiya Neal was the first to head west in early September. Seven weeks later, Rams senior teammate Stephen Coleman joined him at Hillcrest Prep, which is a boys basketball program with a practice facility, player housing, and online schooling to meet educational requirements.
The most famous former player from the 11-year-old Hillcrest program is 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton, who played one season at the University of Arizona before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He now stars for the Phoenix Suns.
BACK STORY: On the athletic landscape in the United States, in the past year hardly a single sports team or individual athlete was left unaffected by the pandemic, whether it be by delays, stoppages, cancellations, quarantine shutdowns, or the loss of entire seasons.
The normal progression of high-level athletes being recruited from the high school level to college programs was put at a virtual standstill by health department regulations, in-school classroom closures, and social distancing from coast to coast.
No graduation class was or perhaps will be more impacted than the high school class of 2021, which not only missed out on much of its normal sports opportunities, but also basically went unseen by college recruiters.
Compounding the problem — because college sports were either shut down entirely (last spring) or delayed significantly (last fall) — the powers governing college athletics decided that college seniors who had lost much of their opportunity to participate would be granted the option of an extra year of eligibility.
With the number of scholarships being finite and factoring in the transfer portal that allows players to switch colleges without being required to miss a season, a bottleneck was created in the opportunities available to incoming high school seniors.
Such was the backdrop this past summer when Neal and Coleman made their move.
GLORY CUT SHORT: The Rams were coming off a 22-3 season under first-year Rogers head coach Rodney Martin, whose team looked legitimately capable of winning a Division II state championship in March of 2020 when the Ohio High School Athletic Association halted all winter sports state tournaments.
The Rams, led by 6-foot-7 seniors DaSean Nelson and Curtis Jackson along with then juniors Neal (6-6) and Coleman (6-5), had just beaten a very good 23-1 Sandusky team, 66-52, in the March 7 D-II district finals.
Entering that game, Sandsuky and Rogers were tied in the No. 8 spot in the D-II state rankings, and the Blue Streaks had beaten the visiting Rams, 76-70, three weeks earlier in the regular season.
After avenging that defeat, the red-hot Rams were set for a regional semifinal game against 20-5 Parma Heights Holy Name on March 12 when everything came to an end.
"We definitely think we could've won it all," Neal said. "We felt like we were playing our best basketball at the time. We had just come off a big win over Sandusky, and there was no doubt in my mind that we could've won it all. That really hurt."
Martin was counting on having Neal and Coleman back, along with current junior guard Nate Houston and Jordan Kynard, to lead the Rams to another outstanding season.
As it turned out, Rogers did not play its first game until Jan. 18 and, with Neal and Coleman gone, struggled to a 5-11 record overall.
UNDER-RECRUITED: From the perspective of local AAU youth coach Jerry Easter, Neal, especially, had flown under the recruiting radar and was in danger of missing out on many college opportunities.
Easter had a personal recruiting connection with Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, an association that emerged through the AAU while coaching of his talented son, Jerry, Jr. The elder Easter put Neal in touch with current Hillcrest head coach Marcus Gantt.
Also familiar with Hillcrest was former Bowsher and Ohio State star and NBA player Dennis Hopson, the men's basketball head coach at Lourdes University. Neal and Coleman had played last summer on one of Hopson's AAU teams.
"They both wanted the opportunity to play against a more competitive group of kids," Hopson said. "I'm not saying that they didn't get that around here but, at Hillcrest, it's much more competitive than what they would get around this area.
"The big thing is, with the pandemic last year, we usually start AAU in April and they couldn't play travel AAU basketball until July. We played all of July and a couple weekends in August. The biggest problem was that college coaches couldn't come out and see those guys play. They could only see them through live stream."
Hopson believes strongly that the Rogers duo made the right move.
"Both of them were under-recruited, and it did them a world of good to go out to Hillcrest so they could be seen and be recruited to a higher level," Hopson said.
"Every coach knows the top prep schools around because we're always looking for talent. [Former NBA player] Mike Bibby was there as a coach for a while. Jerry Easter was influential in getting those guys connected with Hillcrest."
GREATER EXPOSURE: Neal was not exactly without opportunities before he ventured west. He had Division I offers from Toledo, Akron, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Siena, James Madison, Robert Morris, Northern Kentucky, and Tennessee Martin.
But his talent level elevated significantly as he grew into his role as a 6-6 combination guard. Only additional recruiting exposure would bear that out.
As for Martin, he knew he would be losing a major talent from his Rogers team, but agreed that this was a good move for Neal's future.
"I was playing in an AAU tournament and that's how they found out about me," Neal said of Hillcrest. "I ended up taking a visit out there, and I liked it. In late August, that's when I announced I was going there.
"Marcus Gantt, one of their coaches, called me. He was familiar with Toledo through Jerry Easter. He called Jerry, and Jerry vouched for me."
Neal's mother, Jeanine Jones, had some reservations about her son moving across the country, but she relented, and Neal arrived in Phoenix on Sept. 3 to join the Hillcrest program. Within a week, they started with tournament games, part of a season that ended with a 34-3 record. Neal averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds a game.
By Nov. 16, he committed to a scholarship offer to Arizona State University.
"I GOT A GUY" When Neal became aware of an opening on the team, he told Gantt he had a friend back in Toledo that was more than capable of filling it.
Coleman, who has played on teams with Neal since they were in the sixth grade, flew out to Phoenix in early October for a tryout at Hillcrest, then returned home. He had begun the 2020-21 school year at Rogers via online education during the pandemic restrictions. When Hillcrest offered Coleman a spot, he flew back west to enroll and join the team.
"We were looking for more players and I said, 'I got a guy at home with that ability,' " Neal said. "Steve flew out, played in a little trial game, and they liked him. He liked it, and ended up coming back out for real."
He and Neal were housed with Gantt in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise.
"It was kind of different from playing in Toledo," Coleman said. "The competition and the high level of players was a real big difference from home.
"I felt like it was a good move for me because it had a positive effect on my game. It elevated me to where I could get to the next level of basketball."
Coleman and Neal joined teammate Michael Foster, a versatile 6-9 standout who is the No. 6-rated senior player in the country.
"I just looked at him as another high-level kid," Coleman said. "I was playing with Michael Foster. I didn't look at him like I was star-struck. He was my teammate. It was good to play with a high-level talented kid because it created more opportunities for me as a player as well."
Where did Coleman feel he improved the most because of the Hillcrest experience?
"My basketball IQ, my ball-handling, and definitely my shooting got a lot better," Coleman said. "I have no regrets. It was all positive. I took it as a great learning experience, and also a way to prepare me for college by getting away from home."
Coleman, who averaged 10 points per game in his role with Hillcrest, has yet to garner a D-I college offer and might reclassify for another season at Hillcrest.
"My whole purpose for going out there was that I didn't know if we were going to have a season or not here in Toledo," Coleman said. "So, I made a decision to go out there and open my recruitment up to get more looks from higher-level schools."
First Published April 18, 2021, 3:12pm