Brewster Academy basketball: In a class by itself

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Jan. 28—SCOTT DRAPEAU, a 6-foot-8 power forward, led Merrimack Valley High School to the NHIAA Class I boys basketball championship in 1989 and 1990. He began his college playing career at the University of Massachusetts, transferred to New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University) and spent his final two seasons at the University of New Hampshire, where he scored 1,290 points in two seasons for two of the most successful teams in the program's history.

Drapeau, the North Atlantic Conference Player of the Year in 1993-94, coached both girls and boys basketball at Hillsboro-Deering High School, and is currently the boys basketball coach at Bow High School. Clearly, he's had a significant impact on the New Hampshire basketball landscape.

The same can be said about Jason Smith, the point guard on those Merrimack Valley championship teams.

Smith, 49, ran the Merrimack Valley offense back then. Today he runs the boys basketball program at Brewster Academy, a co-educational boarding school in Wolfeboro, nestled next to Lake Winnipesaukee. Brewster attracts some of the best high school basketball talent in the country, seasons those players and then sends them on to many of the nation's top colleges — and top college basketball programs. Many end up in the NBA.

"My role was to get Drapeau the ball any way, anyhow," Smith explained earlier this week. "Coach (Kevin) O'Brien, who I still have a close relationship with, basically told me that I wasn't allowed to shoot unless it was a foul shot, and even then he would lobby to decline the penalty and see if we could take it out on the side. I realized very early that I was playing with one of the best players in the state's history."

The Brewster program has flourished under Smith, who was hired as the school's boys basketball coach in 2000. The Bobcats play in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council's AAA Division, which offers the NEPSAC's highest level of competition.

Brewster has won seven NEPSAC AAA tournament championships since 2008, and seven national prep championships since 2010. Twenty Brewster players have made it to the NBA in the last decade. All this supports the opinion that Brewster has the best prep school basketball program in the nation.

"In terms of prep schools, Brewster has unequivocally set the standard not just in New England but nationally for well over a decade now when you look at the number of national championships that they've won," said Adam Finkelstein, the director of scouting for 247 Sports, a website devoted to college sports and recruiting. "The amount of alums they've sent not just to college basketball, but to the NBA. And of course their success within the New England prep league as well. It's all right there.

"Winning the NEPSAC is always impressive, but it's those national titles that resonate at a higher level, in my opinion. If you take what Brewster has done in the last 10 to 15 years, I'm not sure there's any prep school program at any time that could duplicate that. And I'm going back to some of the historic MCI (Maine Central Institute), Winchendon and Worcester Academy teams. They've just become the standard by which everyone else is judged in prep school basketball.

"The one constant over the years in addition to their history of success, both in terms of winning games and generating prominent alumni, is Jason's humility. You very rarely see him give interviews. While a lot of people in his position would be searching for the limelight, he is just the opposite. He just does his job and lets their track record speak for itself. Brewster offers a lot of things in one place, but Brewster without Jason Smith is not Brewster."

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell is among those who attended Brewster en route to the NBA. Mitchell helped Brewster win two national prep school championships, played at Louisville and was selected by the Utah Jazz with the 13th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft.

Mitchell made headlines when he scored 71 points in a game against the Chicago Bulls earlier this month. On Thursday he was named a starter for this year's NBA All-Star Game.

"The NEPSAC Class AAA I think is the best league in the country because it's a real league, these are all real schools, these kids are all real students and the coaches are really good at what they do," said New Hampton School athletic director Jamie Arsenault, who served as the school's boys basketball coach from 1998 to 2008. "Jason's an unbelievable recruiter and he's brought in high-level talent to that school. You can have high-level talent and not have success. He's had consistent success."

Becoming a powerhouse

Many assume the school earmarked more resources (e.g. financial aid) for basketball, but Smith offered a different explanation. He said the program wasn't in bad shape when he took over, but went to another level when he successfully lobbied the school to move from Class B to Class A (now AAA).

Brewster began competing at the NEPSAC's most competitive level in Smith's second season as head coach, and immediately started to attract players with Division I ability.

"People say, 'Well the team is good now because they have more resources.' I'll say, 'I was also working 18-hour days attracting kids to come visit the school,'" Smith said. "It was long days, a lot of phone calls. Just beating the bushes trying to find players and really explain to them what prep school was, because at that point in time if you were in the Northeast, you knew what prep school was, but if you were in different parts of the country, you weren't as familiar.

"In the second year, we made the jump up in classification to Class A, which at that time was the highest level. I think that's what really helped springboard the level of players and the recruiting because certainly everyone wants to play against the best.

"I think once people saw that we were in the highest classification in New England, that next year we were the No. 7 seed in the New England tournament and we upset MCI in the quarterfinals. (MCI) was the No. 2 seed. That is really what caught people's attention. MCI at that point in time was where Brewster is today."

Smith said back when he was getting the ball to Drapeau he knew he wanted to pursue a career as a basketball coach. He spent a year at Proctor Academy in Andover after he graduated from Merrimack Valley, and then attended SNHU, where he played baseball.

Smith began coaching basketball while he was in college, first as an assistant at Proctor Academy and then at Plymouth State. He landed a job as an assistant at Colby-Sawyer, but left after several weeks to become the head coach at Pittsfield High School.

In addition, Smith started his own AAU program in the mid-90s that included the Friel brothers, Greg and Keith, both of whom went on to play college basketball at the Division I level. Smith's coaching resume also includes time as an assistant under Frank Monahan at Bishop Brady High School and as an assistant at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass.

After one season at Notre Dame Prep, the Brewster Academy job opened up, and, although he had an offer to coach professionally in Europe, Smith's mother urged him to pursue the Brewster job. He listened to mom and was hired as Brewster's head coach when he was 26.

Wide appeal

"I had gone to prep school and saw the benefits of it," Smith explained. "Really liked the boarding school community and wanted an opportunity to be a head coach in a boarding situation.

"In the mid-'80s, early '90s, Brewster was a very strong program. They were routinely sending four or five guys off to Division I programs. They certainly had players, although they historically had always played at the second-highest level of classification. The year before I came, they made it to the New England Class B tournament. They had probably four of five guys go on to play at the Division III level. Dave Bolduc was the coach before me and he did a good job with the program. When I took it over, it still had some name recognition."

Arsenault said when he began coaching at New Hampton, the Brewster program looked nothing like it does today.

"When I first got here, Brewster's basketball team was probably the weakest in all of the Lakes Region," he said. "We had our varsity A team, and they would play our second team with their varsity team. It was mostly international kids playing on the team. They were not competitive at all (against) the world of Class A basketball back in the day.

"And then Jason got the job and pretty much instantly brought in a couple kids — one was a big kid who committed to North Carolina — and then they got competitive right away.

"That's the nature of basketball. You can do that. All you have to do is bring in three kids and that can turn your team instantly. Two or three kids and then you have some role players and hey, you're in it."

Nine Division I commits this year

Smith entered Saturday's home game against Putnam Science Academy with a 599-136 record at Brewster. This year's team has nine players who have committed to Division I schools, including one who will attend Harvard. The others are headed to UConn, Florida State, Tennessee, Xavier, Penn State, Wake Forest, UMass and Central Florida. These days, the program sells itself.

"I haven't had to go out and seek out student athletes in the last decade," Smith said. "It's word of mouth. It's college coaches. It's travel team coaches. It's former players that are recommending kids. That's how it is at a lot of the top level independent schools. I've been fortunate in that we've not only had talented teams, but great kids — academically motivated, good character."

Smith said he speaks to a minimum of seven or eight college coaches per day. Some inquire about the players who have committed to their school, others are curious about players headed to Brewster who they may want to recruit.

As Finkelstein noted, each year Brewster gets the best of the best talent.

Many people wonder why Smith hasn't left Brewster to coach in college. Certainly with the relationships he's forged with college coaches, there must have been opportunities.

He said the reason he hasn't taken a college job is simple: He's content at Brewster.

"I think it's a lot more rewarding at this level helping kids achieve their goals and their dreams," he said. "We do win, but winning isn't the most important thing. When you go to college, winning is the most important thing because you have to keep your job."

Smith remembers when he was sold on the Brewster job. It came during the interview process, and had less to do with the school's campus and academics than it did his competitive nature.

That moment is also when his vision for the Brewster program was solidified.

"When I came to the interview, they had a faculty member give me a tour of campus, and this gentlemen said to me, 'You know you're never going to get a kid who's looking at New Hampton, MCI, those places, and get him to come to Brewster,'" Smith recalled. "And I turned to him, looked at him and said, 'Thank you for your opinion sir, but you don't know me very well.'

"That's when I decided that I wanted to try to get the job at Brewster and build it to what it's become today. That was always the goal: to be the best prep school program in the country."