High school basketball season is still more than a month away, but a battle over one of San Luis Obispo County’s top players has been raging behind the scenes since the summer.
As a starting freshman last season, 6-foot-2 guard Assani Berkeley helped San Luis Obispo High School to one of its best seasons ever in which it shared the PAC 8 League and qualified for the CIF state tournament for the first time in school history.
But this offseason, Berkeley transferred to Mission Prep, seeking a better education and coaching after a tumultuous first year of high school, according to his mother, Nycole Berkeley.
SLO High athletic director and head boys basketball coach Jeff Brandow contested his transfer with the CIF-Central Section, the governing body under which SLO County teams play, alleging the Berkeley family provided fraudulent addresses to CIF and that Mission Prep illegally recruited the player.
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On Tuesday, CIF-Central Section Commissioner Jim Crichlow announced the commission ruled in favor of Berkeley, allowing the transfer to play a full season at Mission Prep. But it’s brought out feelings on both sides that aren’t likely to dissipate anytime soon.
Nycole Berkeley wants no further contact between Brandow and her son; Brandow hasn’t commented publicly on the details of the transfer, but in his letter to CIF he notes he wanted the case to be a deterrent to stop Mission Prep from alleged recruiting of area boys basketball players from other schools.
Nycole Berkeley said her son, who she raises as a single mother, attended Catholic elementary and middle school in Wisconsin before they moved to the Central Coast last year. She hoped he’d thrive on the basketball court and stay on track to study engineering in college.
Berkeley established himself quickly as a standout player at SLO High, earning honorable mention in the PAC 8 League while averaging about 10 points per game and typically guarding the other team’s best player. He recorded 17 points in a first-round CIF playoff game against Alhambra High from Los Angeles County.
San Luis Obispo and Mission Prep had two fierce battles on the court last season, drawing the traditional raucous student crowds. Each school won a game on their respective home courts, and shared the PAC 8 title.
SLO High’s success marked its first league championship since 2008-09, and the team reached the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs.
But despite success on the court, the relationship between the Berkeley family and the school became fractured; Nycole Berkeley said her son was mistreated by the school, putting him through too much physical exertion and inappropriately guiding him academically.
Nycole Berekley cited 18 hours of practice (per week), six days per week (which is allowed by CIF rules) and her son’s winter quarter class schedule that included three physical education classes (weight lifting, physical education and basketball, along with biology and geometry), which she believes fell short educationally.
“The total amount of hours Assani was exercising per week totaled 30.5 hours,” Nycole Berkeley wrote to CIF. “The total time dedicated to academics totaled 10 hours.”
She also added that her son sustained injuries on the team including groin, ankle and back sprains, that Brandow didn’t advise her of and from which he is still recovering.
“He was always tired, in pain, famished (at SLO High),” Nycole Berkeley said before the CIF ruling. “Under no circumstances should he have been treated this way. That’s why I un-enrolled him from San Luis High. .... And now I believe he’s being used a pawn because of this attack on Mission Prep.”
Nycole Berkeley said at Mission Prep her son’s academic schedule is now filled with college-prep classes and practice times are shorter, which she believes won’t overtax or hurt her son.
Nycole Berkeley denied that Mission Prep ever initiated contact with her son or herself, and that she was the one to first reach out to the private school about transferring.
“I realized my son could not thrive at San Luis High, and that is why he is now at Mission,” Nycole Berkeley said.
SLO High contests eligibility
Brandow declined to comment specifically about the case, but in a letter to CIF he cited knowledge of “repeated conversations with Assani and his mother prove that Mission Prep had continually contacted them while Assani was enrolled and attending our school last year.”
Brandow stated in his letter that Berkeley’s transfer paperwork was “inaccurate and fraudulent, as he had two different addresses last year while attending our high school, and they are not listed on the transfer paperwork.”
Brandow added that players at Arroyo Grande and Atascadero high schools also have transferred to Mission Prep, which is “not a coincidence” but a “pattern of recruitment of basketball players.”
In the mid-2000s, CIF penalized Mission Prep for recruitment violations, stripping them of two CIF-Central Section Division 5 titles and placing the school on probation for two years, leading to the resignation of their athletic director and boys basketball coach, Tom Mott.
Atascadero High School Athletic Director Sam DeRose said he couldn’t comment on a student’s transfer enrollment status due to privacy rules. Arroyo Grande High School Athletic Director Stephen Field didn’t return request for comment about player transfers to Mission Prep.
In response to Assani Berkeley’s injuries, Brandow said in a statement that “student safety and well-being is our main priority.”
“Any student-athlete who is injured or suspected of being injured, reports to the athletic trainer and must be cleared by the athletic trainer and/or medical doctor before they return to practice and/or games,” Brandow said in a statement, noting “at no point during this process is a coach involved in decision making.”
Brandow said SLO High students choose their electives, and cited the school’s graduation requirements that include completion of 135 credits in core academic classes (including math, English and science) with 110 credits of electives and 20 credits of physical education.
Students work with counselors to develop a four-year academic plan, sequenced in order to graduate and meet post high school plans, Brandow said.
“This choice of electives is done by the student, and parents always have online access to their students class schedules and grades,” Brandow said. “At no point in this registration process for classes is a coach involved.”
‘I’m still angry’
Nycole Berkeley said in response to the allegation of using fake addresses that she could prove her residences in San Luis Obispo, Atascadero and Paso Robles with copies of utility bills. She said the family moved often last school year, facing financial hardships.
“The CIF paperwork allows spaces for your last two addresses, which is what I gave,” Nycole Berkeley wrote to CIF. “Very simple, I have included multiple documents verifying my move from Atascadero to Paso Robles... This is a valid change of residence.”
Nycole Berkeley said that she feels vindicated after the CIF ruling.
“I’m relieved, but I’m still angry,” she said. “I don’t think we should have had to go through that. I’m relieved for my son. I’m happy for my son, but it was totally unnecessary.”