Elite recruits steer healthy Pioneers to national title

by Sheldon Ocker

Western Reserve Academy has been an educational institution of distinction for decades, but one thing it has not been is an athletic powerhouse. Until now.

On March 5, the Pioneers’ boys basketball team won the National Prep Championship Tournament by beating Putnam Science Academy, three-time defending tournament titlist from Connecticut.

Most seasons, WRA doesn’t even field the best basketball team in its own community, that honor usually belonging to the Hudson High Explorers. But this year, the Pioneers have brought home a national championship. And this might be only the beginning of the WRA basketball “era.’’

Granted, the Pioneers’ star players are moving on to college.

Royce Parham, a 6-foot-8 forward from Pittsburgh, is headed to Marquette University after scoring an average of 20.7 points and grabbing 8.7 rebounds per game. Damarius Owens, a 6-7 forward, will join Parham at Marquette. Owens, from Spencerport, New York, averaged 14.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and four assists.

Damarius Owens, a Marquette recruit,
carries Western Reserve University’s first
national title though the “Gauntlet,” a
tradition where students line the brick
walkway outside the chapel to cheer on
their peers. Photo by Andrew Jordan.

According to 247 Sports, an online rating service, Owens is the 60th best player in the nation and the No. 1 player in Ohio. Parham is ranked 83rd in the U.S. and third in Ohio.

“Damarius wasn’t really on many people’s radar; he was just a really good athlete,” said head coach Matt Garvey about Owens as a ninth-grade prospect. “Royce was better known.’’

Senior Collin O’Connor, a 6-3 point guard from Dayton, has an offer from Stony Brook University on the north shore of Long Island. Cameron Hiatt, a 6-4 junior guard from Woodway, Washington is being tracked by Seattle, Portland and Idaho, according to Garvey.

Junior Nikola Bundalo, from Uniontown, hasn’t committed to a college, but Garvey said he has offers from Ohio State, Cincinnati, Xavier, Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa, Texas, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and UCLA.

“He’s ranked as the 28th best junior in the country,’’ Garvey said of the 6-9 forward, who averaged 16 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

Other Pioneer players are close to committing to colleges or mulling offers.

Garvey took the head coaching job in 2021 after spending five years as the video coordinator at Providence College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a masters in educational counseling.

If not for his friendship with Pete Hutchins, WRA’s athletic director, Garvey still might be employed at Providence. Hutchins was his counselor at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire, the prep school from which Garvey graduated.

When Hutchins left a job as assistant basketball coach at George Mason University in 2020 to become head coach at WRA, he asked Garvey to come along.

“I had very little interest in the job initially,’’ said Garvey, whose perception of Ohio was skewed by his lifelong connection to New England. But after experiencing life in Hudson, he had a revelation. Ohio wasn’t so bad after all.

Imagine Paul Revere galloping past the clock tower on the Green on his way to pick up a pepperoni pizza at 3 Palms. What could be unpleasant about that?

“For one thing, Hudson [and the WRA campus] looks like the Northeast,’’ Garvey said.

So Garvey went about building a solid program, which was something new at WRA. For the first time, the Pioneers qualified for the National Prep Championship Tournament, which invites the top 16 prep schools in the country. WRA ranked as high as 12th during the season, Garvey said.

Garvey began to realize how proficient his team was in June, when the Pioneers went 4-0 in the prestigious Midwest Live tournament, attended by more than 100 Division I college coaches.

“On the way back from New Jersey, I said to my assistant that we have a very talented group,’’ Garvey said, though at that juncture he had no idea the Pioneers would go 31-4.

“It was unusual for WRA, which does not have a reputation for [quality] basketball,’’ the coach said.

Garvey stressed that talent alone isn’t enough to build an exceptional team.

“The bulk of our season runs from October to March,’’ he said. “But April and May are about getting guys bigger, faster and stronger. “We work very hard; practices are intense almost every day.’’

WRA players come from all over the U.S. and from across the pond. Unlike public school basketball teams, prep schools can openly recruit.

“This is the first year we’ve had no European kids,’’ Garvey said. “We have contacts overseas, but a lot of it is word of mouth. Once we get them to Hudson, it really sells itself.’’

For a basketball coach next year starts yesterday.

“We had five graduate and five return,’’ Garvey said. “So we’re hoping this year’s success continues. Our goal is to try and have the best team in the country with academic rigor. We want our guys to get to college and have success right away.’’ ∞

The 31-4 Pioneers surprised many by collecting the title on their first trip to the National Prep Championship Tournament.

On our cover (main / photo): Behind two Marquette University commits, the 31-4 Western Reserve Academy Pioneers surprised many by collecting the title on their first trip to the National Prep Championship Tournament on March 7. Photo by Andrew Jordan