Feature photo: Mikey Williams of Vertical Academy is one of the hottest high school basketball prospects in the nation. He played on Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum. [Photo by Todd Turner]

On paper anyway, things did not look good for the Piedmont Classical High School Bobcats varsity team on Friday. Just a couple years into the program at the Guilford County charter school, they’d come off a losing season of 15-17. Though it was good enough to get them second place in their conference, and to earn them an invite to today’s exhibition matches, they stood at No. 125 in the state’s high-school basketball rankings going in.

It was perhaps a foregone conclusion that they’d lose to Combine Academy, a basketball factory out of Lincolnton that, according to its website, “offers High School and Post Graduate athletes an all-inclusive and comprehensive solution for obtaining a prestigious academic education.” Combine’s varsity team, the Goats, is ranked 11th in the state. And Piedmont Classical’s mission statement doesn’t mention sports at all.

But! During warmups the Bobcats team looks a lot bigger and more seasoned than the Goats squad this afternoon, with a deeper bench and maybe — maybe — just a bit more team chemistry. And the Goats’ jersey numbers don’t quite match up with the roster on Max Preps.

“That’s their regional team,” explains Jeremy Treatman, the man behind the Scholastic Play by Play Classics, which has booked the Special Events Center at the Greensboro Coliseum for the event while a Billy Strings show sets up in the main venue.

Treatman and his crew are essentially barnstormers who tour the country to find the best high school players and teams and then have them play each other in exhibition matches. The allure of events like this has always been especially strong for prep schools, so many of which have superstar scholarship students on their squads who need to perform before college and NBA recruiters. Huge NBA stars have played in this series — Kobe, Lebron, Dwight. Coaches and scouts know about Treatman’s eye for furrowing out talent, particularly at the prep school level.

The Piedmont Classical Bobcats embraced their role as underdog.

But in the last 20 years or so, a new sort of prep school has arisen, of the sort that is only about the sports. Like Word of God, out of Raleigh, currently No. 12 in the state, founded 20 years ago by Pastor Dr. Frank Summerfield, who played on a Weequahic High team in Newark, NJ that won two state championships. In the first game, their best prospect, junior Mekhi Grant, put on a dunking exhibition against Lake Norman Christian. Grant, a recent transfer from Combine Academy, has already got scholarship offers from powerhouses NC State, Cincinnati and Wichita State. among others, though he remains uncommitted to any college program.

Combine Academy, as its name implies, is such a place: a boarding school founded by former Clemson coach Jonah Baize, where students spend as much time training for baseball, basketball, golf or soccer as they do in the classroom.

Treatman would never call this Combine squad the “scrubs” — all of them likely had starting spots on their youth teams — but in this context, that’s what they are: a B squad putting in their time while the A team answers another obligation.

This Greensboro event has been like this from the beginning. Originally Greensboro Day School, the No. 6 team in the state, featured prominently on the schedule, but they had to make up a regular-season game lost to weather, so Piedmont Classical got the call. High Point Wesleyan, No. 129 in the state, got replaced by LaMelo Ball’s 1 of 1 Prep Academy, which in turn got swapped out for Cross Christian Academy out of Delaware, who would later face North Carolina’s No. 2 high school basketball team, Moravian Prep out of Hudson.

But right now, Piedmont Classical Coach Cardes Brown shows some swagger on the sidelines as his team hangs within 10 points of the Goats through three quarters, then pulls ahead at the 3-minute mark of the 4th to finish with a win: 75-68.

That’s why they play the game.

It’s hard to believe, for instance, that Moravian Prep out of Hudson is No. 2 in the state — they look like little boys compared to the Cross Christian Academy squad, currently No. 11 in the state of Delaware, who have facial hair, tattoos, the weathered countenance of seasoned road dogs. Indeed, one of Moravian’s stars is freshman guard Eli Ellis, who averaged 21.9 points per game this season. His little brother Isaac, who is in 8th grade, is also on the team.

But there’s only seven of them from Cross Christian, who rode a bus together from Delaware for hours just to get here. And the Moravian squad has another ace in the hole: Mayar Wol, a 6-foot-8 junior from Fuquay Varina who can shoot, rebound and pass, and who has already got one scholarship offer from Ohio.

Moravian Prep’s Mayar Wol.

Moravian breaks ahead 9-2 in the first minute or so of the game and proceeds to drop 14 more 3-pointers in the first half — 25 overall — to score an astonishing 116 points to Cross Christian’s 66.

The last game of the day goes to the biggest prospect: Mikey Williams of Vertical Academy, a team unlisted in state rankings, devoid of a conference or division, playing under the auspices of Lake Norman Christian Academy but not quite a part of it. Williams is being prospected by LSU, Hampton, Alabama State, NC Central, Texas Southern, Kansas, Tennessee State, Memphis, USC, Arizona State and San Diego State, among others, but at 17 he’s already a star, with his own player pages on ESPN.com, 247Sports and Wikipedia. This is his third high school in as many seasons, starting his career as a freshman in San Ysidro, Calif., outside San Diego, before coming to NC to play for Lake Norman Christian as a sophomore.

As beautiful as his play is, Williams has an off night against the Burlington School, a more traditional prep school in Alamance ranked No. 4 in the state and No. 34 in the country. They went 26-7 this year, losing only to non-conference opponents that included Word of God, here today, and Carmel Christian, the No. 1 high school basketball program in the state coming into the day.

And though he’s missing his threes and not able to penetrate, Williams gets in some key passes and sinks a buzzer-beater at the end of the first half to tie the game 57-57. The Burlington School runs through its entire bench in the struggle against Vertical Academy, hanging in until the last minute before succumbing 75-73.

EPILOGUE

After Friday’s tournament, Moravian Prep moves up in the rankings to No. 1 in NC, pushing Carmel Christian to No. 3 and Greensboro Day School to No. 5 and the Burlington School to No. 4. Combine Academy moves to No. 7, and Word of God moves to No. 12.

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