WOODWARD, Ia. – Woodward Academy’s biggest upset has been keeping its team together.
The residential center for delinquent boys is experiencing unprecedented success in high school basketball this season, with players brought together by the happenstance of assigned treatment and a love of sports.
Behavioral programs and basketball playoffs have joined in harmony.
The Knights will make history Monday night when they become the first youth academy to appear in the Iowa state boys’ basketball tournament. They play Aplington-Parkersburg in the Class 2-A quarterfinals at Wells Fargo Arena.
It’s an important game, and barring overtime, only 32 minutes of a months-long journey to become positive members of society.
“I talk about a sense of belonging and being part of a family with the basketball team,” Woodward Academy coach Dustin Sperling said, “but this is impacting success off the court for everyone on campus.”
Sperling’s squad and style depend on which at-risk students are on Woodward Academy’s small leased campus and how they’re progressing in treatment.
Sports programs provide the peak of the school’s privilege system. Getting to the basketball court can be a challenge for teenage boys from Iowa and surrounding states — they’re taken from criminal or negative backgrounds, often with violence or substance abuse issues — who have been placed in what’s intended as a transformational program.
“If you see our boys in sports, they are some of our best students, and they’ve earned the right to be able to go off campus and participate,” said the academy’s executive director, Ryan Santi.
Athletics is the boys’ pathway to an even greater achievement.
“Being successful when they leave here is the No. 1 goal,” Sperling said.
Inside the academy
Woodward Academy is tucked away in the northeast corner of the state-operated Woodward Resource Center, a 99-year-old property on the north side of town.
A drive down Main Street shows more signage for out-of-season Woodward-Granger football than the tournament-bound Knights. The academy’s main office is a different landscape.
An aging brick fortress called Linden Court serves as the dormitory and administration building. Dark and peeling walls in the basement offices are plastered by team posters, sports memorabilia and every square inch of Woodward Academy pride that fits.
“Sports are important for our boys to be able to participate in as another opportunity to show them who they are and that what they did to get in here doesn’t define them,” Santi said.
Along with its education and treatment plans, the academy offers vocational programs and job training, including the trucking and moving service Knights on the Move.
STATE BOYS’ BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT: Brackets
The basketball team starts with the built-in disadvantage of 100 percent roster turnover each season.
“Our kids are referred to us. We do not seek out our students,” Santi said. “We have no ability to decide what athlete is coming here or not coming here. That is all determined by the referring workers, what trouble, and who is getting in that trouble out there.”
This winter, Woodward Academy has gotten a boost from its roaring and organized student section — composed of students exhibiting positive social behaviors and actions, known as the “Knights Club” — and an up-tempo offense scoring 72.9 points per game, good for third in 2-A.
Woodward Academy senior guard Preston Brittain stands for a portrait during practice Wednesday, March 4, 2015.
Both will be bused down Highway 141 and on full display at Wells Fargo Arena.
“Coach (Sperling) had that much confidence in us,” said Dontre English, a junior guard who plans to attend Des Moines North next school year. “He always told us, ‘I believe you can beat anyone. You’ve come a long way. Keep working.’ We’re still going. If we play the right way, we can win, no doubt about it.”
Come-from-behind wins in the district and substate finals make Woodward Academy’s tournament push all the more impressive. And the team lost a standout in Anthony Allen, who averaged 13.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game but departed in late January.
The Knights (16-7) turned a 16-point deficit to Roland-Story on Feb. 24 into a 61-58 district final win. Then against Panorama in Feb. 28’s substate final, they scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win 46-36.
“I knew we had talent when practice started at the beginning of the season, but the difference for us is whether we’ll keep that talent for the entire season,” Sperling said.
Sperling, 29, also serves as a program director for the academy. Each member of his coaching staff works on-site.
“(Iowa State men’s basketball) Coach (Fred) Hoiberg gets a lot of credit for taking (junior-college) or graduate transfers and putting them together for a season or two,” Santi said. “When Dustin does it with his kids, he may have two months. He’s not only concerned with how his basketball team is going to perform, but how they’re going to positively affect campus and bring excitement and pride to everything we do.”
English and senior stars Ivan Johnson and Preston Brittain have all willingly had their stays extended by the playoff run.
“I decided to voluntarily sign back in because I want to be with this team and finish out the season with this family,” Brittain said. “Of course I want to go home, but I’ve never been to state. I love basketball, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Brittain attended West Central Valley of Stuart last year. An arrest last fall changed his life, but so have the ensuing months at Woodward Academy. Hitting the game-winning 3-pointer against Roland-Story helped, too.
“At first I thought it was so crazy, because I’d never been away and thought it was going to be so bad and terrible,” he said. “If you do the right thing and hold other people accountable, you have a chance to succeed and even play on the team. It’s based off your behavior. It’s not tough to do the right thing.”
“If I want to play, I have to act like an adult.”
Role of sports at Woodward
Athletics moves the needle of motivation. The academy has achieved previous state team appearances in cross country.
The school’s national championship powerlifting team had a record-breaking meet on the same Saturday as the substate final. Santi was in Boston that afternoon watching 2007 grad Cal Lane compete in the long jump at the USATF Indoor National Championships.
Santi will be in attendance Monday, along with every student able to make the trip for Woodward Academy’s historic game.
“We’ve got great kids, so we’re not scared of the environment and we’re not scared of taking them all down there” to support the team, Santi said.
Across a parking lot from the dorms and offices is a steel building with classrooms and a cramped, plastic-tiled gym.
Before practice starts and Sperling can tell his players what to expect defensively from top-seeded Aplington-Parkersburg, a student not on the team has an outburst in the hallway. Teachers and classmates immediately surround and confront the problem, crowding the gym door and loudly pressuring the student to fall back in line.
Quiet stretching is followed by a stream of full-court drills. The players keep running three-on-two and two-on-one, ignoring the military marching in the hallway — “left, right, left” — and following Sperling’s silent structure.
“It can be pretty easy here if you do your part, keep your grades up and don’t act up,” English said.
They’re focused. They have to be.
The court is about to get a lot bigger.
“We’re a family, and we represent one another, and we’re part of something so much bigger than ourselves,” Sperling said. “They act like that on the court and off the court. They fight for each other because of that.”