Rob Fulford is in his fourth year as the head basketball coach at Huntington Prep. The former Mountain State head coach started up the program when it became evident some financial difficulties were on the horizon for Mountain State Academy.
“I always wanted to continue coaching at that level, bringing in extremely high-level high school kids to develop them into big-time college players,” Fulford said.
And just a few years in, Fulford has Huntington Prep rolling behind 6-foot-8 Andrew Wiggins – a player thought of by many as the top prospect in the country for 2013.
“Gorgui Dieng, a kid at Louisville now, was kind of our first big-time player we had,” Fulford said. “Of course, I had Deniz (Kilicli) at Mountain State who is at West Virginia now. We have a lot of players that come through here and it gives the area a chance to see a different level of basketball than maybe what they’re used to.”
His players, meanwhile, attend St. Joseph in the Huntington area, something Fulford says has been a perfect fit.
“The first year it was kind of up and down academically with the school we were with, and that situation wasn’t ideal,” he said. “We then approached St. Joseph and it’s been a great fit ever since. The kids get an extremely high level academic institution in St. Joe and it’s just been a really good fit with the community. Our kids enjoy the atmosphere here at the school and from a basketball standpoint it’s been really fun and we’ve got it going pretty quickly.”
It’s a unique situation, as Huntington Prep recruits like a college, competing on the national high school level. It’s a situation that could potentially create tension for local schools. Fulford, however, has vowed not to take West Virginia players in an effort to avoid that conflict.
Head coach Rob Fulford says the relationship with St. Joseph has been a perfect fit: “We’re all a happy family here and the guys support St. Joe athletics. We want to make sure we’re supportive of their program just as they are of us.”
“We sort of learned the hard way at Mountain State when we had Noah Cottrill,” Fulford said. “You learn from your mistakes on things like that and move forward. We need the WVSSAC to not necessarily sign off on us, but not work against us, which has kind of been the case so far. If we take West Virginia kids, then that’s only going to cause more problems.”
That’s not to say Fulford doesn’t think he could find success with West Virginia players, it’s just that the negatives in doing so would outweigh the positives.
“There’s more to lose from it than there is to gain,” he said. “I’ve always said, though, if we take the best eight to 10 kids in the state of West Virginia, we could compete nationally. But that would, I think, ruin the state of West Virginia high school basketball, and that’s not our goal. Our goal is to win national championships and do it in the right manner. We want to have fan support throughout the state and we don’t want to develop any negative relationships with high school coaches and communities.”
If nothing else, Huntington Prep brings more national attention to the area and the state as the who’s who of college coaches make their way into Huntington to scout and recruit Fulford’s club – most notably this year, of course, Wiggins.
“Andrew is a special talent and an even better kid, which makes it even easier to root for him to be successful,” he said. “He has unbelievable potential and I think he’s been down a little bit this year as the process for him to make a decision (on college) has been weighing on him a little bit.
“But I mean, we say he hasn’t had his best games this year, and he’s still averaging about 24 points and 14 rebounds,” Fulford continued. “He’s just one of those kids that comes around every 10 or 15 years. You hate to put tags and comparisons on him, but barring injuries, he’s going to become the new face of the NBA here in five or 10 years.”
Certainly high praise for a kid who’s still a senior at the high school level. Wiggins, though, stands in at 6-foot-8 and possesses a 44-inch vertical.
“He’s a freakish athlete that knows how to play,” Fulford said. “Right now, he’s just better than everybody else and it’s not even close. Next year in college, he’ll still be better than 95 percent of the kids playing.”
Wiggins still has to make an official decision on his college destination, but several other players on Fulford’s roster have already made the call. Xavier Rathan-Mayes signed with Florida State, Moses Kingsley with Arkansas, Travon Landry with Tennessee and Dominic Woodson with Baylor.
Fulford has high praise for Wiggins: “He’s just one of those kids that comes around every 10 or 15 years. You hate to put tags and comparisons on him, but barring injuries, he’s going to become the new face of the NBA here in five or 10 years.”
As for the local high school players in the state, Fulford says it gives some extra attention to them as well.
“We have schools that come in that are low to mid-major schools that an Andrew Wiggins won’t be going to, but they’ll be in to look at some of the other kids,” he said. “They’ll make their rounds to Huntington High or some of the other local schools to see kids that can play at that level.”
Huntington Prep, meanwhile, has been ranked in the top five in the country this season by multiple publications. And regardless of whether Fulford wins a national title, he’s certainly proud of what his program has become.
“We’re all one big happy family here – the guys support St. Joe athletics. We want to make sure we’re supportive of their programs just as they are us,” he said. “Everyone here gets along and our cumulative GPA here as a team is a 3.36, so we’re bringing in high-quality, high-character kids that just happen to be really good at basketball.”