describe pic here


February 23, 2023

Old friends

Men's Basketball: Ohio's Hargrave connection

By Ashley Beach | Asst. Sports Editor

Not many people would go to a military boarding school by choice; however, basketball players and coaches across the U.S. flock to Hargrave Military Academy each year for the chance to become one of the greats.

The school, located in Chatham, Virginia, has been home to NBA players, several prep-level national champions, NCAA Champions, and March Madness MVPs.

Although Hargrave has impressive sports teams, it's a military school first. Players are expected to live in the barracks, wake up to reveille, get in formation and attend classes like the non-athletes. There are no exceptions because there are also students that are there for non-basketball-related reasons.

"(As a coach,) You are trying to convince 5-star, 4-star recruits that are going Power 5 'hey, I need you to be up at 5:45, 5:50 for 6 a.m. formation," Ohio assistant coach Lamar Thornton said.

Students wake up, eat breakfast and attend class from around 7:55 a.m. until lunch. One of the classes the students can attend is a basketball class that acts as a physical education course. After lunch, students have tutoring until it is time for practice around 3:30 p.m. After practice is dinner and study hall. Then, students can return to the gym for more basketball activities if they'd like. It's a lot like college.

Somedays, it's hard to get out of bed at Hargrave. But some students do it for basketball.

Most players who go to Hargrave elect to attend for their prep year. A prep year is a gap year that the NCAA allows athletes to take before they begin their college careers. Athletes who take prep years maintain their four-year eligibility despite deferring their enrollment for a year.

Prep schools aren't common in all areas of the U.S. There are a few famous prep schools, such as IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, but it's more of an East Coast thing.

"There's a lot up and down the coast of Southern Florida. Now, obviously there's a couple in Virginia," Ohio assistant coach Lee Martin said. "A lot of the players at Hargrave graduate high school, and either they need to get exposure, they went to a smaller high school, they need help academically, they need to develop, whatever it is for that gap year to get recruited and go on to play college ball."

Martin, a Mt. Airy, North Carolina, native, went for the prep program. A college coach suggested Martin look into prep schools when going through the recruiting process. At the time, Martin didn't know what a prep year was, but he decided to look into schools on his coach's list.

The list led him to Hargrave. He attended the academy and played on the postgraduate team for the 2008-09 season. He was coached by Kevin Keatts, the now head coach at North Carolina State, and A.W. Hamilton, the now head coach at Eastern Kentucky.

Lee's prep year was a success and it helped him earn a scholarship to Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. There, he won the South Atlantic Conference and participated in the Division II NCAA Tournament. He was also later named team MVP after his senior season.

Jake Ness, Ohio's director of basketball operations, also attended Hargrave for the postgraduate team. Although, his story is a little different.

Ness grew up in Virginia, about two hours from Hargrave. When he got older, his family moved to Billings, Montana, where he played high school ball.

Ness and his family knew that he was not ready for the transition to college basketball, so they decided that Hargrave was the place for him. Ness wouldn't hit the court quite yet. He was set to be a manager.

"They knew that I was not a Division I caliber player, but the whole goal that season was to get me into basketball shape to possibly play at the next level," Ness said. "I did that and they invited me back to play on the actual post graduate team the next year, which I did."

Ness played for Hargrave during the 2009-10 season. He also played under Keatts and went on to play at Boise State, where he was a member of the 2013 and 2015 NCAA Tournament teams. He is also a member of the Hargrave post graduate basketball Hall-of-Fame.

Both Ness and Lee thought their time at Hargrave was over after their postgraduate years. That wasn't the case. They both found their way back as coaches.

Martin was interested in coaching after college, but he didn't know where to start. Then, his old coach, Hamilton, called.

"I felt like I always wanted to coach, but I wasn't quite sure. I'd always had a close relationship with A.W. and my senior year, he straight-up just asked me around Christmas 'do you want to coach? Do you want to come back to Hargrave?'" Martin said. "I knew that if I wanted to get into college coaching, this was a great start."

Lee returned to Hargrave for the 2013-14 season as an assistant under Hamilton. He was 22 years old at the time, unpaid and living in the barracks. He ate at the mess halls like he had when he was a student and would proctor SATs for extra cash. It wasn't a glorious life, but nothing could replace the coaching experience he gained.

Two seasons later, Martin was joined by Ness and Thornton.

Thornton came to the program in search of a graduate assistant spot. He was a finalist for the role at Michigan State, but it fell through. He'd heard of Hargrave because of Terry Rozier, an NBA player and Youngstown native, but didn't know anything beyond that information.

Describe image here

Provided by Lamar Thorton.

He drove down to campus to meet with Hamilton and Martin. After a little while on the campus, Thornton decided that Hargrave was where he needed to be.

It took a while for Thornton to adjust to the Hargrave lifestyle; after all, he wasn't a former cadet. He grew up in downtown Columbus; he wasn't used to living in the middle of nowhere. There were few restaurants and amenities in Chatham. Also, Thornton arrived before the students had, so he was adjusting alone.

"My first week, when I tell you I thought I was going to quit, I seriously thought about quitting. I was like 'I can't do this.' I couldn't do it," Thornton said. "I was just there in the office by myself every single day, shaved face, shirt tucked in."

“My first week, when I tell you I thought I was going to quit, I seriously thought about quitting. I was like 'I can't do this.' I couldn't do it,”-Lamar Thorton

There was no air conditioning in Thornton's office. He was uncomfortable in more ways than one and it took a toll on him before he even had a chance to coach. In a way, Thornton was experiencing the same transition the athletes faced when they arrived at Hargrave.

"I mentally was losing myself," Thornton said.

Once Martin arrived, he took Thornton out to dinner. The dinner soon turned into a therapy session where Thornton vented to the Hargrave veteran. Martin convinced Thornton that things would get better after the first few weeks. It was worth it to stick it out; he'd see soon enough.

A few days after that dinner, Ness returned to the academy. He got in around midnight and began to unpack in the barracks. He was in the process of making Hargrave home again when he met Thornton. The two talked and they became friends.

Thus began the three's first season as assistants under Hamilton. The three were basketball coaches first, but they had extra jobs on the side also. Ness acted as an ACT/SAT prep teacher and later a health teacher, while Martin was the college prep counselor for a while.

The three put their main focus on the court, though and helped guide Hargrave to a national championship.

However, the trio didn't last long. At the end of the 2015-16 season, Thornton left Hargrave to become a graduate assistant at Toledo. Although his time at Hargrave was short, Thornton is thankful for the season he spent there.

Describe image here

Provided by Lamar Thorton.

"It was definitely a big deal career-wise, just the number of connections I was able to build," Thornton said.

The following season was Ness's final at Hargrave. He left the academy to become a player development assistant with the Dallas Mavericks.

That left Martin as the last man standing. Martin became the head coach and later program director at Hargrave.

"I thought it was going to be a short stop," Martin said. "(Ness) was two years, (Thornton) was one year. I went in and for better or for worse, I stayed seven years."

“I thought it was going to be a short stop,"-Lee Martin

During Martin's tenure at Hargrave, Thornton joined Ohio coach Jeff Boals' staff at Stony Brook ahead of the 2017-18 season. Thornton and Boals had made a connection while Boals was at Ohio State and Thornton Hargrave. The two would meet for brunch during breaks in the year in Columbus.

One year later, Stony Brook needed a director of basketball operations, so Thornton called Ness.

"I remember Boals just coming into our gym at Hargrave and recruiting, I didn't think anything of it, you know, just another coach," Ness said.

Boals had always been a friend of the Hargrave program. He was an assistant with Keatts at Marshall, where they both coached Hamilton. Boals had been recruiting Hargrave for years.

Ness hadn't spoken to Boals before he flew out to Texas, but once Boals arrived, Ness knew he wanted to join the team. Ness became the director of basketball operations at Stony Brook in the summer of 2018.

After one season at Stony Brook, Ness, Thornton and Boals came to Ohio in 2019 when Boals was hired as head coach. Martin would later join the team in the 2020-21 season.

The 2020-21 season was the year that Ohio won the Mid-American Conference Championship and defeated Virginia in March Madness. It was a whirlwind year, and the three were happy to be together again.

"The biggest thing is not trying to take it for granted because I think it's a unique situation that you actually get to work with people you like every day," Thornton said.

Describe image here

Jack Tatham| For The Post

Ohio University assistant coach Lamar Thornton points into the air as the team seals their win against Northern Illinois at the Convocation Center on February 21, 2023.

While at Ohio, the trio ran into another Hargrave alumni, I.J. Ezuma. Ezuma came to Ohio in the fall of 2021 for his freshman year.

Ezuma's Hargrave story is a little different from Ness, Martin and Thornton's. He began at the academy when he was in middle school.

"It's kind of unheard of to hear a kid go from seventh grade all the way through Hargrave as many years as I.J. did," Ness said. "Most guys are there for maybe two, three years tops. He did the whole thing."

Ezuma knew Ness and Lee before he arrived at Ohio because of their shared time at Hargrave. Thornton had left Hargrave the year Ezuma enrolled.

Ezuma was thrown right into the Hargrave culture at a young age. He wasn't quite the 6-foot-8 240 lbs basketball player he is now, but he got there over the years. At times he struggled with the structure, but he found ways to have fun.

One of Ezuma's favorite moments at Hargrave was Founder's Day his eighth-grade year. The entire school came out for the event, playing games and letting loose.

"I was a big eighth grader, as you can see, and there was this event, there was a big red ball seven or eight feet tall, and we would run at each other and run toward the ball on opposite ends to try and push the ball to the other side. Like a full sprint," Ezuma said. "I remember hitting the ball, bouncing back and I fell. I thought I had a concussion or something but it was just so fun."

Ezuma made some friends during his stay, too, including Ohio's Gabe Wiznitzer.

Wiznitzer was there for a prep year because he, like Ness and Martin, needed one more year to progress before college. Wiznitzer had previously attended the Christ School in Asheville, North Carolina. His brother, Nick, had attended Hargrave before him and Wiznitzer joined the program after his coach had departed from the Christ School.

Describe image here

Chloe Eggleston| For The Post

OU Guard Elmore James (No. 1) and OU Center Gabe Wiznitzer (No. 11) getting ready to box out a Cleveland State player on Nov. 12, 2022, at The Convo in Athens, Ohio.

Wiznitzer and Ezuma lived on the same floor at Hargrave. Ezuma was a year younger than Wiznitzer, but they still ran in similar social circles. Ezuma recalled that Wiznitzer lived on the last door on the left of their floor.

"We weren't necessarily that close because his team was a lot closer with him, but we would hang out," Wiznitzer said. "I remember he would sell Honey Buns."

Wiznitzer's connection to Hargrave brought him to Ohio. Martin, who had coached him at Hargrave, helped recruit him to the Bobcats.

"Coach Martin and I are really close. I'd say he's honestly one of the main reasons I came here just because he already trusted me and I trusted him," Wiznitzer said.

Now, all five of Ohio's Hargrave alumni are vying for a Mid-American Conference Championship together. They bonded over their background and the many hours spent sweating in the Hargrave gym. Without Hargrave, the five of them might not have met or ended up at Ohio.

Describe image here

Jack Tatham| For The Post

Ohio University assistant Lee Martin talks to director of operations Jake Ness during the game against Northern Illinois at the Convocation Center on February 21, 2023.

"I'm thankful for Hargrave. I'm definitely very appreciative," Wiznitzer said. "While you're there, it sucks, but once you're done, you look back on it, appreciate doing the hard things, especially with your friends and the people you're so close with."

Hargrave taught the five of them to appreciate basketball and the time spent at lifts, practice and on the road.

"Hargrave is hard. Even working there, it's tough," Ness said. "It's different, but we always said, when the guys are going to formation, going to class, that's the hard part of their day/ The most enjoyable part of the day is coming to basketball."

All five of Ohio's Hargrave alumni are grateful for the time they spent there because it taught them the discipline needed to survive coaching and playing at the college level.

Eight years ago, Ness, Thornton and Martin were coaching together at a prep school in the middle of nowhere. Now, they're in Athens and they couldn't be happier.

"We've done a lot of winning, guys," Martin said to Thornton and Ness with a smile. "Think about it. We won the national championship in prep school together, we get here and go to the NCAA Tournament, beat Virginia and last year we won 25 games. I don't know what it is."

Wiznitzer and Ezuma feel the same way. They’re happy to be Bobcats.

“Whatever you’re doing, have fun while you’re doing it. Life’s short,” Ezuma said. Over the years, the Hargrave brotherhood has served more than just Ohio; the academy has a long history of churning out incredible athletes. The Bobcats are lucky to have swayed a few to come to another school in the middle of nowhere for a few more years.

AUTHOR: Ashley Beach
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jack Tatham and Chloe Eggleston