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HUTTON: New NWI prep school offers second shot at college hoops

Merrillville's Zoran Talley goes basket first quarter against Portage Portage High School Friday night. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Merrillville's Zoran Talley goes to the basket in the first quarter against Portage at Portage High School Friday night. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 8, 2013 7:16AM



MERRILLVILLE — Zoran Talley didn’t have to think hard about his only immediate choice to play basketball after high school to reconsider his options.

He was offered a scholarship to play at Neosho County Community College in Chanute, Kan.

That is 650 miles from Merrillville, in the southern half of Kansas, in a town with a population of 9,116, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Kansas City is a two-hour drive from Chanute.

It gets cold in the dusty Kansas plains in the winter and, well frankly, it just didn’t sound like a great time for a recently graduated basketball player from the region.

Talley had quintessential fall-through-the-cracks potential as a basketball player.

At 6-6, he was a good shooter for Merrillville and a decent ball handler. He averaged 12.7 points per game for the Pirates, a team that won the Michigan City Regional.

College presented one major problem for Talley that a lot of good players have: He didn’t have the test scores or the grades.

Talley was close to qualifying in both areas but he wasn’t there.

His salvation from Neosho will be Midwest Elite Prep Academy, a new prep school right here in Northwest Indiana.

“This will be a chance to get my grades up, stay close to home and work on my test scores,” Talley said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Talley is headlining a class that already includes two players from Illinois, one from Indianapolis and three from overseas.

It’s every basketball player’s unalienable right to chase the Division-I dream, particularly if the player is from Indiana, right?

The truth is MEP has a Northwest Indiana flair to it. It’s unique. Very unique. The school is a kindergarten-12th grade, accredited school housed at 8101 Polo Club Drive in Merrillville. It’s owned by Ronda Payne. The players —the goal is to have 15 — will attend classes, mostly for test preparation and one class they can make up from high school, and then play basketball. There is a dual purpose to this place: basketball and school work that relates directly toward qualifying for college. The kids have to be close to qualifying or it won’t work.

The home games are going to be held at Campagna Academy in Schererville and the practices are going to be at the Fieldhouse-Merrillville. They’ll do weight training and conditioning with Frank Eksten, the director of strength and conditioning at St. Anthony’s. The cost is $6,000.

Glen Hefferman, who was an assistant at LaLumiere in LaPorte and who has experience as a college assistant, is the coach.

Hefferman said the time was right for Northwest Indiana and South Chicago to have a relatively inexpensive alternative for kids to pursue their Division-I dream.

“This area is a hotbed for basketball for so many good players, who for one reason or another just slip through the cracks,” he said.

Indeed, with Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht, both prep school products, playing in the NCAA national championship game this year, the timing is perfect to open something up.

“Two years ago, if you would’ve asked if there would be two kids playing in the title game, everyone would’ve said, ‘No way,’ ” he said.

Hefferman said the team is going to play a 30-game schedule (it can’t play Indiana high schools because all the players have graduated) and it will travel all over the Midwest for games. The goal is to find colleges where the kids can play basketball, whether it’s Division I or II or NAIA.

Hefferman said the exposure his kids get is amplified way beyond what any borderline college prospect in high school could get.

“We could go to a tournament and have 100 coaches there,” he said. “You just can’t beat it.”

Chris Artis was so intrigued by MEPA that he left his job as an assistant at Calumet after nine seasons. Artis teaches sixth grade at East Chicago. He played basketball at Andrean and Valparaiso University. He knows what these kids need and he wants to be there for them.

Artis was the go-to guy for Talley when he was trying to sort through his options.

“I want to help these kids out,” he said. “Many of them fall through the cracks. They just don’t have the guidance they need to get there.”



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