Iowa high school sports history is being made this week at the boys’ state basketball tournament in Des Moines. For the first time, a school for delinquent young men is competing.
It’s been a long, 23-game season for the Knights. At an afternoon practice session, head coach Dustin Sperling works to keep his players from falling into a rut.
“I think we’ve gotten to robotic," he tells the team. "We look like we’re going through the motions. People start to jump where the ball’s going to go because we’re being predictable, right. We’ve talked about it, fake a pass, make a pass.”
No one could have predicted the Woodward Academy team’s unprecedented run to the state basketball tourney. The 260-bed, residential treatment facility is the first school for troubled youth to advance to state. Sperling is in his second year as head coach of the Knights after three years as an assistant.
“I love it. I wouldn’t coach anywhere else," Sperling says "I love coaching these guys. I see a new group of guys every year and watching them grow from the time they get here until the time they leave.”
Woodward Academy sits on the grounds of Woodward Resource Center 25 miles northwest of Des Moines. It’s a separate, non-profit operation that opened in 1995. It takes boys between the ages of 12-and-18 who have run afoul of the law, and steers them in a more positive direction. First time offenders spend 90 days there. Those in need of more counseling and treatment stay as long as 18 months. Otherwise, says the Academy’s executive director Ryan Santi, it’s like a typical high school with biology labs, math and English classrooms, a state approved curriculum.
“We do have very normal kids out here," Santi says. "Probably in their public high school there are guys who go to school every day who have done the exact same things our guys have done. The difference would be our boys got caught.”
The basketball team’s success this season has created quite a stir on campus. Santi says he gets goose bumps just thinking about it. Starting point guard Dontrae English came all the way from Denver, Colorado, to become a Knight.
“It’s overwhelming to be part of something bigger than myself," he says. "Now it’s the team. A year ago we didn’t know each other. It's all just come together.”
The Knights have overcome some obstacles to make it to Wells Fargo Arena. Their leading rebounder left the team at mid-season to return home after completing his treatment program. Nico Morris from Waterloo moved into the position and says the experience has enabled him to get over some barriers in his personal life.
“Woodward Academy has been helping me out a lot," he says. "It’s a second chance for me to fix my mistakes, fix the way I’m thinking, make me better, you know.”
The Academy came back from 16 points down to beat Roland-Story in the district final. They went on a 21-nothing run in the fourth quarter against Panorama to win by ten at sub-state. Shooting guard Preston Brittain of Redfield hit the winning three-pointer in the Roland-Story game. He says the lessons he’s learned about teamwork this year cross over from sports to life.
“There’s a lot of pride in being a Wartburg Academy Knight," he says. "A lot of dedication throughout everything you do whether it’s basketball or not, helping another person out, helping a brother out.”
Brittain says he’s made some “bad choices” in his young life, but he’s turned things around and now plans to enroll at Grandview University and continue playing basketball. First, he and his teammates have another challenge. They take on top-seed Aplington-Parkersburg in a first-round Class 2A game. Of course, the Woodward Academy Knights are no strangers to challenges.