High school basketball's equivalent of Rome being built in a day is taking shape in the shadow of Caesars Palace.
Meet the Pilots of Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.). A team that didn't exist three years ago nearly won the national prep school championship in 2008, dropping only its final game of the season following 32 wins. After losing six seniors who landed college scholarships, the 2008-09 team hasn't been beaten through 20 games. Findlay Prep is ranked No. 4 in this week's ESPN RISE FAB 50 and already has been extended a tentative invitation to play in an eight-team national high school championship tournament (co-sponsored by ESPN) in April.
Findlay Prep has built up a record of 52-1 in two seasons under coach Michael Peck. This season, the school has won 15 games by at least 20 points, six by at least 40 and four by at least 60. Three seniors already have signed with Texas, Illinois and UNLV, and at least one more is likely to sign with a college basketball program.
Coach Peck, can this season's team be beaten?
"Oh, sure," he said without hesitation. "If you're short, fat, skinny, tall, slow, quick -- if a team is making shots, they're in the game. We've seen kids that aren't real athletic or quick score on us. Any time you've got that, they have a chance."
The team from Vegas rarely plays in Vegas. Findlay Prep isn't a member of the Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association and plays a national schedule that has the Pilots jetting around the country most weekends. Peck wouldn't guess how many miles his team will travel this season.
"We just go based on the number of trips east," said Peck, who served as associate coach to Scott Beeten during the team's first season, 2006-07. "Last year, nine or 10. This year, it's probably going to be eight or nine."
Nine is also the number of players on the team, none from Vegas. They have come from across the country and beyond. One is from Canada, one is from Puerto Rico and one is from Nigeria. When the Pilots require some five-on-five practice time, assistant coach Todd Simon usually hits the floor.
"I get a little more running than I ever anticipated at this stage," Simon said.
Not that Simon needs more quality time with the players. He and his wife are the house parents for most of the team. The Simons and eight players live in a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house about two blocks from campus. (The other player lives with a host family.)
"When we're looking at the applicants of who we're going to bring in," Simon said, "hey, I've literally got to live with these guys."
Speaking of the campus, it might be hard to find Findlay Prep on your Garmin. It's not a school. The Findlay Prep basketball program is affiliated with The Henderson International School, which has a high school enrollment of about 60 and its own athletic program. When the Pilots play at home, they play in the "Home of the Wolverines."
"Our guys are fully integrated," Peck said. "They go to classes with the other students. They eat lunch with the other students. The only thing that's different is practices and game schedule."
It's called Findlay Prep because the program was concocted and funded by Las Vegas auto magnate Cliff Findlay, who played basketball for UNLV from 1967 to 1970 and is an active Runnin' Rebels booster. On the Findlay Prep Web site, it says Findlay was inspired to start the program by his son's experience playing prep school ball. He'd initially committed to the program for five years.
The '06-07 Pilots went 13-9 under Beeten, a former college coach. He agreed to coach Findlay Prep while still teaching history at Valley High (Las Vegas). Beeten said he scheduled prep school heavyweights from across the country but didn't bring in any postgraduate players so the Pilots could play a few games against local high schools.
Beeten left after one season, with Peck and Simon taking over the program. They'd come to Findlay Prep from UNLV in 2006 before Beeten was hired. Peck was UNLV's video coordinator for three years, and Simon was an aide to Runnin' Rebels coach Lon Kruger.
With a roster that included fifth-year players, the '07-08 Pilots ran off 32 straight wins. In the final of the national prep championship in New York, they lost to Hargrave Military (Chatham, Va.) 75-73. From that team, Jacques Streeter is a starter for Cal State Fullerton, while three other players see significant court time for major college programs (Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins, Cal's Jorge Gutierrez and Florida State's Deividas Dulkys).
The mission changed again for the 2008-09 season. Peck dropped fifth-year players so Findlay Prep could be eligible for national high school polls such as the ESPN RISE FAB 50 and USA Today. That, he added, also made the program eligible for full Nike sponsorship.
The NIAA granted Findlay Prep a one-year grace period this season to schedule more member schools, which Peck sought to cut travel. The NIAA's blessing also enabled Findlay Prep to schedule games against out-of-state high schools in states that require an opponent to have the approval of its state association.
According to Findlay Prep's Web site, the Pilots have defeated all six of their Nevada neighbors by an average of 44 points with two games to play. NIAA executive director Eddie Bonine said he has an idea how his board will vote in the summer on extending the arrangement. "I'm not going to tip my hand," Bonine said.
Peck said he realizes some schools around Las Vegas haven't been thrilled with Findlay Prep from the outset. That's why the program won't bring in players straight from Nevada high schools.
"The playing field isn't really even, so we're not interested in creating any enemies," Peck said. "We're not interested in robbing from our backyard. We want people to feel good about us, support us."
Senior guard Avery Bradley pointed out Findlay Prep defeated New Creations Christian (Richmond, Ind.) by 35 in November but by only six a few weeks ago.
"We told ourselves we'd never get comfortable with that anymore," he said.
Bradley, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard who has signed with Texas, is the Pilots' leading scorer, averaging 19.6 points per game. He arrived in August from Bellarmine Prep (Tacoma, Wash.), where he would have played one more season alongside point guard Abdul Gaddy, a Washington signee.
Bradley said he and his mother decided he'd make the move to better enable him to reach NCAA academic requirements for initial eligibility.
"It's kind of the same as my private school back in Washington," Bradley said. "It's just as hard, but here we're forced to do it. I have nothing else to do, and I tell myself I'm going to get my work done. Our coaches help us get our work done and make sure we get out work done. It's not like I'm going off doing extra stuff after school like I used to do."
Bradley is one of five seniors on the team, joined by three juniors and one sophomore. He said he likes rooming with junior Cory Joseph from Ohio because they're both quiet. The players who live in the house are assigned various duties, eat dinner together, have quiet time starting at 10, lights out at 11:30 and weekend curfew. But there is no reveille in the morning.
"School starts at 7:45," Simon said. "There are alarms going off at 7:38."
Peck said he expects Findlay Prep to exist beyond the initial five-year plan.
"I think people are happy with it and like it," he said. "It's been a positive thing. So I can't imagine that anyone would want to scrap it."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.