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Courting success



Mike Woodbury and team

Mike Woodbury, known as Coach Woody at his Port St. Lucie training facility, had to find a larger home when several players moved in with his family. ANTHONY INSWASTY

Basketball coach provides players with lessons for sports and life

BY ELLEN GILLETTE

What do Italy, Canada, Haiti, Turkey, Senegal, and New York City have in common?

At the moment, representatives from each area not only play basketball together in Port St. Lucie, and see each other at school every day, they live together as well. Even more uniquely, they live with their coach, Mike “Woody” Woodbury, in the Tesoro community of Port St. Lucie.

Woodbury grew up in Maine, eventually earning a dual degree in business and sports management. While owning an oil company, he tapped into New England’s love of basketball. And for 24 years, he owned and operated MBNation Basketball, placing more college players than any other program in Maine.

“The day I left to come to Florida to visit my sister, it was 8 degrees at home and felt 10 degrees colder,” he says. “When I landed, it was 78 degrees. That 80-degree difference did not make it difficult for me to put roots down here.”

He brought with him a dream to train young people to be not only athletically excellent, but academically excellent as well.

“For most players, basketball lasts a few years,” he says. “Education is forever.”

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS
The Nation opened up on Enterprise Drive with basketball, cheerleading, and tumbling programs. (MBNation continues under the direction of an alum.) By last spring, there were 19 basketball teams for boys and girls in grades K-12. For a monthly fee ($125), players participate in practices, games, drills, and, if age appropriate, college-prospect training. This includes the opportunity to be scouted by visiting college coaches.

When one of The Nation’s players was offered a college scholarship, only to have it vanish because he hadn’t taken all of the NCAA-required credits, Woodbury tried to place him with a New England prep school, but the cost was prohibitive. “His heart took over,” associate Liz Bell says.

“The solution was to start a prep school myself, get him qualified, and then take on others,” says Woodbury. “Most kids have no idea how a scholarship like that can change their lives.”

As word spread that Woodbury was in sunny Florida, offering not only basketball training, but also an emphasis on NCAA course compliance with the newly organized The Nation Prep, students began to arrive through international contacts. Human Services in Arizona contacted him about a student from Senegal. His school was closing due to a general lack of care. Could Woodbury take him?

Then the Haitian rep for FIBA (International Basketball Federation) called to say that a Haitian student was about to get deported due to another school’s closing. Could The Nation Prep provide training and board?

“We added another bed,” he recalls.

STABLE ENVIRONMENT
Woodbury says his program is unique in that it offers 100 percent college placement. Scholarships may be athletic, academic, or a mix of both. Parents appreciate this benefit, as well as the stable environment Woodbury provides in his own home.

“I had to sell a smaller house on the water and get something bigger,” he says. “Much bigger!”

Woodbury’s wife, Patty, herself an educator, is “the glue that keeps it all together;” she also provides the meals, buffet-style. “They basically graze 24 hours a day.”

When son Reese turned 12 recently, the players sang Happy Birthday to him in seven languages. (Reese, by the way, played on a championship 19-and-under team at age 5.)

Starting out, Woodbury’s team was enrolled in Florida Virtual School, using part of The Nation as a kind of computerized one-room schoolhouse, but Woodbury never shook the dream of combining all of the positive aspects of the total school experience.

Driving to meet a college recruiter last year, Woodbury noticed a sign for Barnabas Christian Academy at 1860 Fountainview Blvd. A friend had mentioned the school to him, and now he’d stumbled upon it. Stopping and introducing himself to Administrator Bill Reed, he sensed an immediate connection.

“I felt not only that collaboration could benefit us both, I felt that it should,” he says.

Woodbury explained his desire to add an academic component and to grow the international aspect to The Nation, which the academy could facilitate. Woodbury, in turn, could help the school by mentoring the basketball coach and team. “He had impeccable connections,” Reed says. “And I was impressed by his integrity. His business expertise has been an asset to us as well.”

It has been a match, it would seem, that was made in heaven.

STUDENT SACRIFICES
Woodbury and General Manager Liz Bell (a Maine program alum) moved their office to the school in November 2017, eventually enrolling 16 of their local and international players. By the end of the first semester, 15 players had made the honor roll. They’ve participated in chapel, a skit, the school’s spelling bee and are learning to play violin. One player was crowned homecoming king.

“The school embraced the boys right off, and they embraced the school,” Woodbury says.

The coach’s pride in his proteges is evident.

“These kids are making unbelievable sacrifices,” he says. “Our international students have changed their culture and lifestyle. Some haven’t seen their families for years.”

Six days a week, they adhere to a grueling schedule of school, training, and/or study. Living together and training together has meshed the boys into an amazing, cohesive team.

Woodbury sees what he’s doing not as a business, or even as an important program. For him, it’s also ministry. Some of the players living with him pay nothing, because they have nothing but desire and talent. Others can only fund the academic program. Local students in the program may have Florida Step Up for Students scholarships. It’s a mixed bag, and admittedly unorthodox, but it’s also working.

GOING AN EXTRA YEAR
Another philosophy that Woodbury brought from Maine is that of the 13th-year, or postgraduate, student/player.

“It’s very popular in the Northeast, but not often seen here,” Woodbury explains. “A student may need to bring up SAT scores, is unable to qualify athletically, need an extra year of maturation or all of the above. I call it a bridge year between high school and college and I believe it can greatly improve successful outcomes.”

BCA/The Nation is creating quite a buzz in high school athletics, performing well at the KSA Events Holiday Basketball Tournament in December at Disney World and in games against local teams.

“But just as thrilling to me is when they’re at the house singing karaoke, or someone asks me to hang his School Spirit certificate on my wall.

“We needed to make sure this would work,” he says, “and it has.”

“It has been a win-win situation,” says Reed, explaining that BCA plans to move to a new, larger location in time for the 2018-19 year. The Nation’s on-site training facility for athletics will be part of the campus.

“Eventually, we hope to offer volleyball, football, soccer, cheerleading, golf, and cross-country,” Woodbury says. The Nation has “ripped off the rear view mirror. We’re only looking forward from now on.”