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Transfers fuel rivals' suspicions of Villa Park basketball success

Three fellow Century League coaches accuse Spartans' Reynolds of recruiting violations.

August 18, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The Villa Park High boys' basketball program hadn't had a winning season in 20 years when Kevin Reynolds took over as coach more than a decade ago.

"Basketball was not a priority here," said Reynolds, a husky, independent auditor who is paid an annual stipend by the school. "Our mentality was that if we build up the program, kids will want to play for us."

Reynolds' vision has been realized with 10 Century League championships in the last 12 years, two Southern Section championship-game appearances since 1997, and an impressive list of graduates who have played for major colleges.

But that success has also prompted complaints about the tactics Reynolds and his staff have used to create an Orange County powerhouse.

Three rival Century League basketball coaches recently accused Villa Park of rule-breaking recruiting practices.

"Every year I compete against [Reynolds] and lose by six or seven points, and the difference repeatedly is the guys he brings in," Placentia El Dorado Coach Ryan Mounce told The Times in an interview, where he was joined by Tustin High Coach Richard Bossenmeyer and Orange El Modena's Ryan Schmidt. "We just want a level playing field. Kevin is unwilling to play at our level, and he's thumbing his nose at [the California Interscholastic Federation]."

Two years ago, Bossenmeyer aired his concerns about Villa Park basketball in a two-page letter to the Southern Section of the CIF, citing the "cycle of transfers" -- eight players -- into the program between 2002 and 2006.

Reynolds denied breaking rules and said the Spartans' 92-8 run in league play through 2006 led opponents to have a "misperception" about his program. "I'm proud of what we do, and I don't apologize for our success," he said.

Though it is rare for coaches to point the finger publicly at one of their own, accusations of rule violations are not uncommon in Southern California high school sports, where dozens of prominent athletes might change schools in a given year.

"I'd like to think most are simply rumors, but in the situations where there's credible evidence, we ask for the public's help to come forward with that information and we will follow up," said James Staunton, commissioner of the Southern Section.

That doesn't happen very often. Spokesman Thom Simmons said the Southern Section has disciplined no more than 10 cases of undue influence in the last 10 years -- though the penalties can be severe, including loss of playoff privileges or banishment from the section.

Villa Park has not been punished, but the section has expressed concern about transfer players using an extended-stay hotel near the school to meet residency requirements.

Section officials said the address of the Extended Stay America in Orange was given by former all-league point guards Kyle Johnson, in 2004, and Kertd Elisaldez, in 2006, and again last year in a transfer application by Huntington Beach Brethren Christian player Jeff Jefferson.

"We told the school our concerns were that kids from various locations -- Pico Rivera [Elisaldez], Cypress [Jefferson] and Sacramento [Johnson] -- had come to this same, one hotel," said Paul Castillo, formerly the section's assistant commissioner for basketball.

Castillo, who has since retired, said he informed Villa Park Athletic Director Tom Fox that he was "concerned about the use" of the hotel when it came up for a third time in the Jefferson application.

Villa Park responded by banning use of the hotel by athletes seeking a transfer. "It may be OK to do this by the letter of [high school federation rules], but we've declared it ineligible," Principal Ed Howard said in an interview.

But the controversy surrounding Villa Park's program didn't stop there. Reynolds is facing questions about guard Zach Mills, who averaged 20 points a game last season for the Anaheim Esperanza freshman team.

Mills' mother, Tracy, told The Times that she met privately on the Villa Park campus with Reynolds, and that he told her Zach "would fit right in" on his team.

Such a meeting would be a violation of high school undue-influence rules, Simmons said, adding that the Southern Section has "an interest in finding out more of the facts."

Tracy Mills said in an interview that the meeting was arranged by Prince Cassell, the director of her son's club team, after a conversation in which she expressed frustration with the direction of Esperanza's varsity.

"I really wanted Zach to change schools and [Cassell] thought Villa Park was where he should go," Tracy Mills said. "[Reynolds] did tell me that Zach would fit right in -- those were his exact words -- and I agreed with him. I liked knowing [Reynolds] is a hired gun who wants to win."

Reynolds denied that a private meeting with Tracy Mills was arranged. Cassell, whose Southern California Aces use Villa Park's gym as a home court, said he did not encourage Tracy Mills to seek a transfer for her son.

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