WORDS by Nolan Shulman
VIDEO by Donnie Seals

In ’08-09, only one group of athletes could claim to be the best high school team on the planet. For the Findlay College Prep Pilots, winning the ESPN Rise National High School Invitational was the pinnacle of an undefeated season. It was the reward for sacrifices made by teenage men, mature beyond their years.

It isn’t a typical high school setting in Henderson, NV. In the brief history of this now storied program, the Pilots have gathered an amalgamation of talent from over 15 countries worldwide. Young men who’ve left their family and friends behind to chase a dream and take their basketball skills to the next level. “We’re trying to help guys be as prepared as possible for that next step in their lives ” says Head Coach Michael Peck. To do so, the players basically live a college life. Balancing school with practice and living with assistant coach Todd Simon gives the players a chance to get used to life away from their support system.

To help get these elite athletes ready for the next level on the court, coach Peck has put together a regimented routine which includes becoming the finest conditioned high school basketball players in the land. Prior to the start of the season, players wake up five days a week at 5 a.m. to run sprints and cross country. They do this for an entire month, and are put in a competitive atmosphere to ensure their times are improving and the team is becoming a well-oiled machine. “Coach Peck can run the mile in under four minutes, so if he tells me to do something because it’s going to make me faster, I’m going to do it,” claims power forward Tristan Thompson — a consensus top 10 senior in the Class of 2010. The Findlay staff also puts a heavy emphasis on weight training. ” Findlay has helped me a lot in terms of getting my body developed. Before I came to Findlay, I never really touched any weights. When I got here, I weighed 210 pounds and was just flesh and bones,” says Thompson, who now weighs upwards of 240 pounds.

While coach Peck has put an emphasis on conditioning, he hasn’t done so at the expense of the other fundamentals. The Pilots spend a tremendous amount of time on defensive principles, making sure players know their assignments and give maximum effort. This work has helped many of their players gain reputations as some of the best defenders in America. The Pilots also shoot an absurd amount of jump shots, understanding that you have to score the ball to win consistently.

Last year all the hard work paid off. The Pilots plugged their way through a treacherous schedule, running the table, and upsetting the Oak Hill Academy Warriors in the ESPN Rise Championship game. After going 33-0 and winning the National Championship, SLAM examines what coach Peck and his star studded cast at Findlay Prep will do for an encore (Watch the video above for more–Ed.).

The first order of business will be replacing all-world guard Avery Bradley. Now a freshman at Texas, Bradley was the heart and soul of last year’s team. Not only did Avery possess the best mid-range game in the country, but he was a lock down defender, had ice in his veins, and led by example to instill the ultimate work ethic in his teammates. According to coach Peck, “Avery’s character and demeanor was exactly what we try to get our guys to embody. He had great poise, was very humble, and was an ultra competitor. Anything that was a challenge he sought out to dominate and win.” To understand exactly how much Bradley meant to the success of the Pilots, a quote from Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith sums it up. After seeing Bradley’s brilliance first hand in the Championship game, coach Smith said emphatically, “That’s the best guard I’ve ever coached against.”

About to embark on a brand new season without Avery, the beat must go on for Findlay College Prep. So how will the Pilots go about replacing their go-to guy? According to coach Peck “You’re never going to replace him. We don’t want the guy who fills his spot to become Avery Bradley, but, we would like that player to embody some of the intangibles he had. The Discipline, the character, the work ethic, and the competitiveness. From a playing standpoint, guys are always going to be different.”

Who’s going to be the lucky guard who gets to walk in Avery’s shadow? The consensus seems to be Nick Johnson, a junior combo guard from Gilbert, AZ. Anyone who saw Johnson play this summer for the Drew Gooden Soldiers would agree that he’s a young man who’s up to the challenge. “We feel Nick does a few things even better than Avery at this point in the year. Obviously there are some things he doesn’t do quite as well, but we’re going to try and get him there,” proclaims a confident coach Peck. “Avery set the bar high. I realize that right now my expectations of Nick might not be realistic, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to change them. We’re going to hold them out there and push him every day to reach those expectations.”

Nick is an electric guard with excellent athleticism and a reliable jump shot. He can stroke it from three or take it inside and make floaters, tear drops, and jumpers at the elbow. He’s got good handles, seems to be unflappable, and has the desire and work ethic to be the best player he can be. So what does Nick think his role will be on this year’s team? “Anything they need. If they need scoring, if they need defense, I’m the guy for that,” says Johnson ” I just want to be where the rest of the guys are at. They’ve shown me their rings, and I just want to do what it takes to get one. Whatever it takes to win.”

Playing alongside Nick Johnson will be senior sensation, Cory Joseph. A native of Toronto, Canada, Joseph is one of the most highly regarded floor generals in the country. It’s not about tangibles when talking about Cory, and trust me he’s got them all. When you look at Cory’s brief resume, the common denominator is winning. Already holding two Ontario Championships and a National Championship, Joseph is going to be counted on to lead Findlay Prep on another magical run. “Cory is a guy that’s all about winning. Whatever it takes to win. He’s a fierce competitor but also possesses the intangibles. If he scores two points and we win, then he’ll tell you that was the right thing. He’s not interested in lines, stats, and numbers. Bottom line, he’s interested in Ws,” says coach Peck, now fired up.

The backcourt isn’t the only place the defending National Champions are stacked. Their frontcourt features two extremely talented seniors that will leave you shaking your head. It starts with another Toronto native, Tristan Thompson. Reminiscent of a young Derrick Coleman, the lefty possess soft hands, a good stroke, and surprising speed, making his face-up game tough to guard. He’s also got the body, work ethic, and desire to do the dirty work. To sum it up, he’s the total package. When asked to talk about last year’s championship, the first thing out of Tristan’s mouth was “Let’s do it again. I’m not the type of person who’s going to settle with one championship. I’ve still got one more year left and I’m trying to get another one so I can leave with two.” To make sure he gets it done, Tristan plans on taking a bigger role in the leadership of the team. “Last year Avery was the dominant leader, but we were all leaders throughout different aspects of the season. With me, Cory, and Godwin back, there’s nothing to worry about from a leadership standpoint.”

Godwin Okonji is the other returning senior in the Pilots frontcourt. All the way from Lagos, Nigeria, Godwin returns for a third season with Findlay Prep. According to coach Peck, “His senior year it seems to have clicked for him. He’s confident, long, athletic, strong, and can guard one through five.” No matter who you talk to in the Findlay program, everyone seems to rave about Godwin as a leader and teammate. He and Tristan should form one of the most talented and experienced frontcourts in the country.

Providing depth for the Pilots will be Jabari Brown, Nigel Williams-Goss, Winston Sheppard, Marko Petrovic, and Dekeeba Battee Aston.

Jabari is a California kid and was Nick’s teammate on the Drew Gooden Soldiers. He should see heavy minutes in the guard rotation. We’re talking about a player who can knock it down from deep or slash to the rim. He’s a versatile scorer with a body built for the next level, and should help fill the scoring void left by Bradley.

Elite level guards seem to be a dime a dozen at Findlay Prep. For the first time ever, the Pilots will feature a freshman on their roster. The future looks bright for 2013 prospect Nigel Williams-Goss. “You would never guess seeing our practices that this kid was a freshman,” says coach Peck. “It’s scary to imagine him as a junior. He’s competing now, and holding his own against supposedly some of the best perimeter guys in the country. He’s a special one.”

Providing depth up front will be 6-7 sophomore Winston Sheppard. He’s extremely versatile and can play multiple positions on the floor. He’s capable of being a face-up power forward, or using his perimeter skills to play the wing. Winston is one of the top ranked prospects in the class of 2012 and should learn a lot playing with upperclassmen who have achieved so much success.

Much like last year, Findlay Prep has put together a lineup consisting of some pretty overwhelming talent. Not only do they have three seniors who are battle tested, but they have underclassmen who are good enough to be thrown to the fire.

The talent is certainly going to be needed and tested, because looking at their schedule, they don’t have many nights off. Every game is going to be a war, and each one is equally important as the next. When you’re the defending champions you better be ready for your opponents best effort, because every night is another team’s “Super Bowl.”

Some of the Pilots early season highlights include two matchups with Dwight Powell’s IMG Academy, and a showdown in Peoria, IL against Quincy Miller’s Quality Education Academy. Those are just the appetizers.

The real fireworks go off December 17 when the Findlay Prep Pilots travel to Columbus, OH to play Jared Sullinger and his Northland Vikings. “He’s a great friend of mine. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be a great matchup. Who wouldn’t want to see me versus Jared Sullinger,” declares Thompson.

If that game gets your pallet wet, wait till you see what’s in store on Martin Luther King Day. The defending National Champs will square off with New Jersey powerhouse St. Patrick’s, a team which features Michael Gilchrist, the No. 1 junior in the country. St. Patrick’s is the team everyone’s saying will provide the biggest challenge in the Pilots quest to repeat. Thompson vs. Gilchrist won’t be the only heavyweight matchup on this night. It will also feature recent Duke commit and one of the country’s top rated point guards, Kyrie Irving, going toe to toe with Cory Joseph. We’ll find out a lot about these four players during this epic showdown.

With such a daunting schedule the Pilots may not go undefeated again this season, but one thing is certain. It won’t be due to a lack of talent. It won’t be because they were outworked. And it certainly won’t be because they weren’t hungry to repeat.

Follow Findlay’s quest to repeat as National Champions at theseason.wordpress.com.

Nolan Shulman is the North American Recruiting Analyst for Flagrant Fouls. He provides an in-depth look at standout prospects and programs from Toronto to California.