Homeschool athletes getting the eye of recruiters

Sunday, March 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Kevin Johnson's emergence as a budding college basketball star in the Western Athletic Conference followed a celebrated high school career for a team with no home court, blaring band or big yellow bus.

Johnson, who averaged 13 points a game this season at Tulsa, was part of a team of homeschooled athletes from Houston who competed against public and private high schools.

A small, growing number of athletes from teams started by parents who educate their kids at home are bound for college courts, fields and cross country courses.

A few _ including Johnson _ are NCAA Division I athletes. He was highly recruited when he finished high school three years ago.

Johnson helped Tulsa advance to the NCAA Tournament's eight-team round last year.

He picked Tulsa partly because he didn't want to go to a big university. Johnson said he also wanted to get away from home but not too far away.

As a teen, he was coached by his father, Marshall Johnson, who played professional football with the Baltimore Colts in the late 1970s and was a three-sport athlete at the University of Houston.

Johnson's team won the national homeschool tournament his senior year. He said he was homeschooled since fourth grade. His parents, members of the Assembly of God church, disliked public schools trends that included smart-mouthed students, drugs and guns, Johnson said.

``They took a chance and I'm glad they did it. I don't regret anything about it,'' he said.

This academic year, the NCAA declared about 100 homeschool students eligible for athletics as freshmen in divisions I and II compared with about 85 a year earlier.

``It sort of stands to reason that if the number of homeschool students increases, the number of homeschool student athletes increases,'' NCAA spokesman Wallace Renfro said.

More incoming freshman are asking the NAIA, a small-college league, to waive its rule requiring them to graduate from accredited high schools.

That indicates interest from homeschoolers, spokesman Chris Pond said.

Coaches from small church-affiliated colleges in the Midwest are expected to scout at the National Homeschool Christian Basketball Tournament Tuesday through March 10 in Oklahoma City.

The decade-old event may be the closest thing to an umbrella organization for homeschool athletic groups that usually start up and form leagues by discovering others like them.

Their numbers have spread over the past decade with the growing homeschool movement as more parents choose to educate their children themselves, often for religious reasons.

Homeschool athletes appear to gravitate to smaller church-affliated colleges.

``There are definitely some good kids and good athletes there,'' said Bobby Martin, men's basketball coach and athletic director at Southern Nazarene University, an NAIA school in Bethany allied with the Nazarene Church.

Tournament coordinator Tim Flatt, who coaches a team in Oklahoma City, estimates between 500 and 700 homeschool athletic associations offering varsity level basketball nationwide. Some groups also play other sports.

Oklahoma has seven varsity programs, Flatt said.

There are 20 in the Indiana Christian Basketball Alliance, which has a state tournament unaffiliated with the national one.

``There are many more teams than that in the state. They're just not all participating in our conference,'' said Kathleen Najmon, the alliance treasurer.

Some states allow homeschool athletes to play on public school teams.

Nathan Day, who averages 13 points a game at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., was a homeschool student who played varsity basketball at a private high school in Kansas.

``It was a Christian school but a majority of our guys were homeschooled,'' said Day, whose father, Alan Day, now of San Antonio, coached him in high school and has been active in the national tournament.

Quality of play varies widely because different state regulations effectively dictate where programs are strongest, Flatt said.

``You may have five kids on a team who can't dribble,'' he said.

Doug Pierson, coordinator of a team in Big Rock, Ill., said he constantly struggles to balance the desires of parents who want competitive athletics with those who view play chiefly as a physical education class.

``Part of our problem is once kids get good they go to school,'' Pierson said.

Sportsmanship and character are paramount for the Northeast Oklahoma Homeschool Association in Tulsa, where 160 kids play on grade school through high school teams for N.O.A.H. Jaguars.

``We try not to boo and some of those things,'' said Steve Ellis, the coordinator and a financial adviser who has two sons playing.

The Jags, decked in royal blue and white, even have cheerleaders.