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Controversy Over Australia's Iti Fades at New England School

November 26, 2001|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINCHENDON, Mass. — The dazzling array of crimson, green and gold leaves that envelops the hilltop Winchendon School on fall days makes for a picturesque setting, but it's not the reason transient basketball players such as Martin Iti flock to this small New England prep school.

Iti, a 6-foot-11 Australian, spent the last three-plus years crisscrossing the United States, making two stops at Orange County high schools.

Once the subject of probes by the California Interscholastic Federation, the Colorado High School Activities Assn. and the NCAA, he had exhausted his high school eligibility when he left Villa Park High last January to return home to Sydney. At the time, he was serving a yearlong athletic suspension for misleading Orange Unified School District officials about his academic status.

Winchendon offered a basketball team teeming with talent and, perhaps most important, an opportunity to be unburdened by regulations that govern traditional high school programs.

"We abide by different rules," said Mike Byrnes, Winchendon's basketball coach. "Most of our kids have already [used] their four years of high school eligibility. We don't play other high schools. We play other prep schools."

Winchendon is Iti's sixth high school--Anaheim Servite was the stop before Villa Park--in four states since he left Australia in May 1998 with plans of boosting his basketball career.

Yearly tuition at Winchendon is $27,950, but Iti, 18, is receiving need-based financial aid that covers all his expenses.

He was barely on track to graduate when he left Villa Park, but he has managed mostly Bs and Cs in classes such as computer science, English and U.S. history, Headmaster J. William LaBelle said.

Through his coach, Iti declined to be interviewed, but a friend who lives in the same dorm said he seems happy. "I don't think he's got any enemies here," Ryan Harris said.

Iti, a junior, will have two seasons of basketball eligibility remaining before deciding whether to attend college or--if the opportunity presents itself--jump directly to a professional league.

Three NBA franchises have expressed interest, Byrnes said, even though Iti hasn't played high school basketball since the 1999-2000 school year, when he averaged a modest 12 points and 7.6 rebounds at Servite. Iti's best selling point seems to be his height.

"He needs a lot of individual work," Byrnes said.

Iti is just another player at Winchendon. Byrnes estimates that as many as 12 players on the team's 15-man roster will receive Division I scholarship offers.

Iti has averaged 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocks per game for Winchendon (2-0).

"You can tell that he hasn't played organized basketball in a while," Byrnes said. "But his effort and desire are there, and there have been stretches where he's had three blocks in a row, and you can see glimpses of brilliance."

The issues that dogged Iti at his previous schools--his immigration status and the role of his guardian, Courtney Rosegreen--have not been a problem at Winchendon, LaBelle said. Iti has a student visa and no longer lives with Rosegreen, who has faded into the background at his new home in Hartford, Conn., more than a two-hour drive away. Rosegreen who faced allegations of child abuse when he left Southern California with Iti earlier this year.

"I think he's just happy that all the [trouble] is over with," Byrnes said. "He's had enough distractions in the past. All he needs to worry about is being an 18-year-old kid."

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