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Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:10 A.M.

High School Sports
Seattle-area prep hoop stars in a class by themselves

By Greg Bishop and Matt Peterson
Seattle Times staff reporters

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Martell Webster, a 6-foot-6 Seattle Prep guard, was rated the nation's No. 1 player in his class before being injured last season.
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Some people spend their whole lives searching for a class like this. They scour the country, from New York City playgrounds to California beaches, tagging the future, the can't-miss and the must-sign.

And then something like this happens. A class of players emerges from an unlikely locale, a city known for moisture finds itself awash in talent, and the world of college basketball takes notice.

Every big-name college coach — from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski to Arizona's Lute Olson, to name a (Mark) Few — calls and writes, drools and fawns. All because of the Greater Seattle Class of 2005. Who knew?

"In the past, the state of Washington has probably been underrated in terms of producing guys," said Dave Telep, who works for the TheInsiders network. "But I'll tell you what, that little metropolitan area has absolutely hit the jackpot. That's as good a group of guys in one city as you're going to find right now."

After a dozen interviews with national recruiting experts, and college and high-school coaches, the consensus is that the Class of 2005 — both boys and girls — is the deepest and most sought after in state history.

Bob Gibbons, a longtime recruiting analyst from North Carolina, can't think of a class like this from Seattle.

"Consistently, you've had good players come out of the area, but not this many from one class that I can recall," he said. "And I've been doing this for 30 years."

Boys: Sextet of stars

Start with the boys.

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Terrence Williams, a 6-6 guard from Rainier Beach who plays above the rim, has already made an oral commitment, choosing Louisville over Indiana and Kansas.
There's Martell Webster of Seattle Prep, the bluest of blue chips, a 6-foot-6 guard who struggled last year with injuries, but once was considered the best player nationally in this class. He played five games last season, but remains in the top 10 on most recruiting lists.

"That's a testament to what he was when he was healthy," Telep said. "He gets a pass for being injured because of his talent level."

There's Jon Brockman of Snohomish, a 6-8 forward, all heart and guts and effort, the kind of player who sweats through his shirt during pregame warmups. He's a double-double waiting to happen.

"He's the Pete Rose of high-school basketball," Telep said. "He's all-out hustle all the time."

There's Micah Downs of Bothell, also 6-8, but leaner than Brockman. Able to shoot from beyond three-point range or slash to the hoop and hang, Downs is compared by Gibbons to a young Mike Dunleavy. Downs chose Kansas over Duke and Gonzaga.

There's Terrence Williams of Rainier Beach, a 6-6 guard who dazzles crowds with athleticism. Part showman, part aerial acrobat, he's a highlight-reel in motion, not to mention a slick passer and improving shooter. He chose Louisville over Indiana and Kansas.

There's Marcus Williams of Roosevelt, a 6-7 guard, saxophone-smooth with style and grace. He averaged a KingCo 4A-best 27 points last season while scoring 30 or more nine times.

And there's Mitch Johnson of O'Dea, a 6-1 point guard whose stock has climbed steadily since March, when he led the Irish to the Class 3A state championship, earning tournament Most Valuable Player. A smart ballhandler with a steady touch, he runs an offense with precision.

Six players. One class.

"Unbelievable," Telep said.

Led by Webster at No. 5, six are ranked among the top 25 prep prospects in the nation by TheInsiders, which also lists Brockman (15), Downs (17), Terrence Williams (20) and Marcus Williams (25).

"I don't think I've ever seen a situation where there's four or five, maybe six, true blue-chip players come out of the same class," said Kent-Meridian coach Al Hairston, who won five state titles at Garfield before becoming head coach at Seattle University and an assistant at Washington. "It ranks as good as any I've seen since I've been around here."

JOHN LOK / THE TIMES
Monroe's 6-6 Kirsten Thompson is uncommitted for her college choice.
Girls: tall and small

Move next to the girls.

Even before the class of 2005 started its junior season, way back in October at Pac-10 media day in San Jose, coaches were already making plans for a class with depth at key positions unlike any they had ever seen.

"It's a pot of gold," Washington State women's coach Sherri Murrell said. "We just hope that rainbow ends over the Palouse."

To that end, the Cougars saved a scholarship specifically for this class, despite Murrell's admission that her rebuilding program couldn't really afford it.

"I cannot remember any year as good as this," said Bill Resler, coach of Class 4A state champion Roosevelt. "Sherri was smart. She's in a position to pick up a really high-quality player."

There's Kirsten Thompson of Monroe, a 6-6 center ranked as high as the seventh-best player in the country, a player Meadowdale coach Karen Blair said "is in a class all by herself. There hasn't been a kid in the state with that kind of length — ever."

There's Malia O'Neal of Garfield, a 5-5½ point guard, a slasher, a finisher, a leader who never takes a break. Resler sums up her game in one word. Winner.

There's Jacqua Williams of Rainier Beach, a 5-7 point guard, a two-sport star weighing track and basketball options. She's brash, smart (4.0 grade-point average) and fast (four-time state sprint champion).

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Malia O'Neal, Garfield's 5-5½ point guard, is a slashing player whom rival coach Bill Resler of Roosevelt sums up in one word as a "winner."
And then throw in point guard Briann January (Lewis and Clark of Spokane), who some coaches consider the best in the state, and posts Jami Bjorklund (University of Spokane), Heidi McNeill (Oak Harbor with a commitment to Washington) and Ebonee Coates (Curtis of Tacoma). Thompson and Coates were two of 48 national players invited to the USA Basketball Women's Youth Development Festival.

That they fall into hard-to-find categories — point guards and posts — only adds to the intrigue.

"Bigs do things you can't teach," Resler said of post players. "They're just there. Point guards are even rarer. They have special brains."

Murrell keeps her fingers crossed, both for her program and her state keeping local talent home.

"I've never seen this kind of national interest," she said. "The biggest thing, and this is really hard for me to say, is that you want them to be at Washington or Washington State. In some states, there's such an allegiance to their state school. You haven't seen that so much here."

Moving to the elite

This is what their lives are like, what happens when they move past good and into the elite.

• Their mailmen work overtime.

Webster said he gets 50 pieces of mail a day from colleges across the country. Marcus Williams put his estimate at 30, many hand-written and rushed via Federal Express. Brockman filled 15 shoeboxes with letters so similar he has the form memorized.

"It's just a bunch of scraps," Webster said. "Sometimes, I read it. Sometimes, I just assume what it is. I already know what they're going to say."

• Their phones ring so often telemarketers can't get through.

A college coach buzzed O'Neal at a recent barbecue, and by the time they finished talking, the food was either cold or gone.

"I didn't get to have the barbecue," she lamented.

JIM BATES / THE TIMES
Jon Brockman stands tall in national recruiting, but is uncommitted for college.
Marcus Williams sometimes awakens to 8 a.m. phone calls from East Coast coaches not familiar with teenagers' sleeping habits.

"The first day they could call, I was on the phone all day," Jacqua Williams said. "For hours."

Brockman sometimes pretends he's his older brother, Paul, to avoid another call. But not during one recent day, when North Carolina's Roy Williams, Duke's Krzyzewski, Washington's Lorenzo Romar, UCLA's Ben Howland and Gonzaga's Mark Few all called Snohomish. Brockman estimates he gets one or two media calls a night.

"Every coach in the top 50 has called me at one time or another in the past year," said Jim Marsh, coach of the Friends of Hoop AAU team. "The reputation is reaching fever pitch."

• Rumors and speculation fly like jump shots.

O'Neal heard a rumor that she committed to Louisiana State, the alma mater of her coach, Joyce Walker, when the Tigers were in town for the NCAA tournament. Brockman received advice from a checker at his local grocery store.

"Where does this stuff come from?" he asked.

• Schools pull out all the stops.

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Jim Marsh, coach of the Friends of Hoop AAU team, is surrounded by an exceptional group of boys players in the Class of 2005. "Every (college) coach in the top 50 has called me at one time or another in the past year" about them, he said.
Kansas sent Downs and other recruits to a photo shoot in Kansas uniforms, then took them to the football stadium, where highlights and their pictures flashed across the big screen, along with the following message: "Are you next?" Downs didn't take another visit.

When Thompson's coach at Monroe, Alan Dickson, visited Notre Dame, an assistant took him on a tour, while Irish coach Muffet McGraw watched cartoons with Dickson's grandchild.

And then comes the tough part — saying no. Take Monroe's Thompson. Initially, 145 schools showed interest and 80 or so are still actively recruiting her.

"It's like talking to sales people all day," she said.

After narrowing her list to 15, Thompson nearly cried the first time she told somebody no. Now, her dad handles the rejections.

On and on it goes, recruiting scopes narrowing in on the Puget Sound.

Something's stirring in NW

Is this coincidence? Dumb luck? Some combination of the two?

Perhaps, but some coaches say there might be something stirring here. Maybe a pot that had long been simmering has finally broken into a roiling boil.

"We (Seattle) have had them all along, but it has been kind of tough for us to break into it because we don't get the exposure," said Rainier Beach boys coach Mike Bethea, whose team held the No. 1 national ranking a year and a half ago. "People are starting to find out that this really is a hotbed for basketball players."

Travel certainly factored into the equation, as more teams spend their summers on the road, thus increasing the visibility of Northwest basketball. Most of these players spend July entirely away from home. Like McNeill, who travels to Oregon City, Ore.; Vancouver, B.C.; Reno, Nev.; Los Angeles and San Diego, back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

Mercer Island coach Ed Pepple, the state's all-time winningest high-school coach with 872 victories, was one of the first local coaches to organize a summer all-star team. But it wasn't always easy.

When former Islanders stars Quin Snyder and Brian Schwabe were seniors in the mid-1980s, there weren't enough players from Washington for a team. Pepple brought in players from Oregon to fill out the roster. And then they hit the road.

"Now, you have six or seven teams out there traveling," Pepple said. "It's just kind of an evolution as we've taken more kids out and gotten more exposure."

JIM BATES / THE TIMES
Micah Downs, who played last year at Bothell, has committed to Kansas.
Can't-miss kids

Can't-miss prospects filter into the gym at Seattle University, with bags slung over their shoulders in preparation for another flight to another tournament and another round of national exposure. Friends of Hoop coach Marsh lines jerseys up neatly against the wall, next to new T-shirts and gym shoes and chatting parents.

Marsh, a former NBA player and Sonics broadcaster, has watched this class develop, coaching Webster, Brockman, Downs and Johnson on his AAU team. The best class ever? He thinks so.

"It's going to get nothing but better," Marsh said. "There will come a year when you have four elite players on one team like this one. Who knows where it's going to come from? But I'm sure it's going to happen."

His voice trails off.

"Who knows? You've got an eighth-grader, and he's about as good an eighth grader as I've ever seen in my life. Renado Parker. Awesome. R-E-N-A-D-O."

They found what they were looking for, the class of 2005, the class of a lifetime. And the search continues.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com; Matt Peterson: 206-515-5536 or mpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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