Six months ago when Indiana’s top boys basketball Seniors hit the court to compete in the one-day Prep Ball Stars Midwest Challenge that featured some of the finest high school hoopers from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, the basketball event was another chance for Tony Leach to step back and take it all in.
A native of Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University, Leach is heavily rooted in the game of basketball throughout Indiana and the Midwest. He has not only been influential in shaping and building young athletes to become better players and people, but he’s placed an emphasis of educating student-athletes on the realities of going on to play in college. It’s just part of Leach’s dedicated approach to basketball and assisting kids and parents on navigating those choppy waters with Prep Ball Stars, the Prep Ball Stars Midwest Challenge, and the Prep Ball Stars Combine Series.
But that’s only part of the story.
Through Prep Ball Stars, Leach also opened doors for students looking to begin building their experience in sports media, journalism, photography, and videography by covering the Midwest Challenge and the Combine Series up close and personal for Prep Ball Stars. Take a quick look at the list of players who have slipped on a Prep Ball Stars jersey and the roster reads impressively. Players have gone on to reach the NCAA Final Four, to standing out at the D1 level, and also high school Seniors who have improved their recruitment and scholarship status based on how they competed at the Prep Ball Stars Midwest Challenge.
The game is in good hands thanks to Leach. Kids get better on the court. They grow. They earn more opportunities in athletics and academics, and even back in 2011 when Leach developed Sports Ventures International first as Prep Hoop Stars, the goal was to provide a stage for young talented high school and prep basketball players to come of age.
Leach recently shared his thoughts on these points, who he considers his most memorable Prep Ball Stars players to come through the program, and how partnering with Wooter Apparel has given him timely insight on design and expanding Prep Ball Stars into a global brand…
When you first started Prep Hoop Stars eight years ago, did you imagine the idea and program would grow as it has over the years in Indiana throughout the Midwest?
Not at all. I just knew the process of recruitment and what college coaches look for having helped over 25 different players that played in my youth basketball program (at one time or another) receive scholarship opportunities at all levels of college athletics. And I also knew I wanted to give back to my community and these kids in some way, so I made Prep Hoop Stars initially the vehicle to help reach that goal.
What's been the best part (or the hardest part) about looking back on that time and seeing how far things have come with launching Prep Ball Stars two years ago?
It has been a lot of work! But at the same time, it has been rewarding knowing that through the efforts of Prep Ball Stars that student-athletes and players have received exposure at all levels and ultimately scholarship opportunities and offers as part of that process. It’s also great to know that the brand is continuously building and is one of the best parts about Prep Ball Stars. Also, knowing that the brand name or even the apparel that we’ve created is being worn all over the country as far as Hawaii -- there were even some players from Washington that live on an Indian Reservation that bought backpacks. Thanks to those kind of positive experiences, it has been an exciting and rewarding to make that kind of impact.
Both the Prep Ball Midwest Challenge and the Prep Ball Stars Combine Series really has provided a great opportunity for student-athletes to grow on and off of the court and stand out in their class...what do you think has helped contribute to that success?
I think parents, students, and athletes have come to know that we really care about the athlete beyond just athletics. Our goal is to help them and their parents understand the process from start to finish and how our program prepares them for those steps. Creating and developing things like articles, video packages, and profile posts on players for example, that is something companies generally charge people to view but we provide that as part of our service. The biggest key to that has been my genuine relationship with both parents and the players we work with. Lastly, being able to get those players on the phone and/or committed to your event has been critical to the success of the Midwest Challenge and Combine (dates and sign-up available here).
Who have been some of your favorite players to watch come through the program and excel after being able to either play in the Midwest Challenge or take part in the Combine Series?
I’ve been watching Eric Hunter Jr. (Purdue) and Aaron Henry (Michigan State) play basketball since they were 6th graders in middle school. Also, Kevin Easley who is currently at TCU. To have these guys participate in the Midwest Challenge and then watch Eric go on the the Elite 8 and Aaron the Final 4 was a thrill! Kevin was one of the top Freshman in the nation last year at Tennessee-Chattanooga. Another player on that list would be Xavier Pinson out of Chicago. I thought he was a high major point guard after watching him at my camp, but he was on the second team for his AAU team and the backup for his school team. He had low major offers at first, but shortly after coming to one of my camps, he started getting high major offers and is now playing at Missouri. Another example of a player who worked hard and stood-out: Mack Smith (Warren Central). I was really high on his talents and basketball abilities when no one was, so that is a proud moment for the program. He only had one offer to an NAIA school, but that changed thanks to our event and being able to showcase Mack (and promote him through our media and social media platforms). Now, he’s starting his Junior year at Eastern Illinois and has been a starter his first two years of college.
One of the best parts about Prep Ball Stars is the dedicated approach to providing the opportunity for student-athletes (or students in general) to get involved in sports journalism and sports media. Why was it important for you to include this great outlet as a part of the program at Prep Ball Stars?
The goal is to provide exposure to players as well as future commentators, writers, videographers and photographers, and even illustrators. These students are our future. We have already had success. One of our commentators is now a morning anchor in Arizona right out of college. Another one is doing University of Kentucky football and basketball games and even did an Indiana Pacers broadcast. Another student wanted a basketball scholarship, but did commentating for football and is now on a full ride communications scholarship to Howard. I am just as excited about this end of the business as I am the athlete side.
And the players look the part too and hit the court like professionals thanks to the jerseys and uniforms from Wooter Apparel...did you ever think you'd be teaming-up to design and create your own jerseys and apparel line?
The apparel wasn't part of the original plan but it really kind of evolved. The red, white and blue is the staple for the branding, but the other color schemes are fun for the players. They should have fun and look good while playing, or even at school or on the road with one of the Prep Ball Stars backpacks.
Wooter captured the look and feel of Prep Ball Stars perfectly thank to their customized apparel. What does it mean to you to see kids/players from around Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee hitting these courts and combines with Prep Ball Stars across their chest?
It feels great! It just shows if you have a vision for something, believe in it and are willing to work harder than anyone else to see it through, it can happen. We are on our way. When it comes to partnering with Wooter Apparel, my goal is to make Prep Ball Stars a BRAND, and one of the best ways to do that is to have consumers wearing that product. What I appreciate the most about Wooter is the design flexibility. They have brought my designs to life and have even added some flavor of their own.
What's next for Prep Ball Stars...do you have another eight year run in you? What keeps you looking ahead and growing things around the game in the Midwest?
The next 12 to 24 months are critical for the company. We are fielding a lot of calls from all over the country and even some from abroad and will always look to partner with the right people. The goal is for Prep Ball Stars to be a global brand, complete with events, tournaments and exposure for the brand and its student-athletes and players. The Combine (which just hosted its event in Chicago) will expand to as many as 15 markets in 2020 and the Challenge event will expand as well. We will also support other organizations and tournaments at their events with media coverage.