It’s a new day at St. Anthony Catholic High School. A change of focus is evident as soon as you visit the school’s website. Gone are the flashy photos of high-flying basketball phenoms, replaced by photos of the school’s chapel, students in class, and smiling faces around campus.
Gone, too, are the basketball stars themselves: 6-foot-10 Charles Bassey, 7-foot Ousmane Ndim, 6-foot-1 Sam Chaput, 6-foot-8 Obi Prosper, and 6-foot Jordan Persad. All have transferred to other schools. Also gone are athletic director Vaughan Rehfeld, principal Rene Escobedo, and Hennssy Auriantal, the athletic coordinator who served as guardian to Bassey, who is from Nigeria.
While the small, family-oriented school appeared to be making a push to become a national basketball powerhouse with a roster of NCAA Division I prospects, a personnel shakeup over the summer suggest a return to deeper roots.
“Unfortunately, over the last couple of years the focus has been on athletics,” University of Incarnate Word (UIW) Associate Provost and Dean of the Dreeben School of Education Denise Staudt said.
UIW manages St. Anthony, which has about 400 students, and its sister school, Incarnate Word High School.
Earlier this year, Dan Ochoa stepped down from his position as dean of preparatory programs at UIW and returned to St. Anthony, where he had been principal from 2001-2004. He pleaded no contest in July to arson charges related to an insurance claim, and resigned from his position. Two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, Kristina Vidaurri was hired to lead St. Anthony.
In hiring Vidaurri as the new principal of the small school on McCullough Avenue, Staudt hopes to see the Catholic identity and college preparatory focus return to the forefront of the school’s reputation.
Vidaurri is a San Antonio native and graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio. She formerly worked as a consultant for Pearson, an educational services and products provider. Before that Vidaurri worked at KIPP San Antonio and Judson Independent School District.
“The biggest vision I have for this school is that [graduates] are prepared to attend an Ivy League school,” said Vidaurri, who describes herself as a “passionate” lifelong Catholic. As a Latina and the school’s first female principal, Vidaurri identifies with part of the school that may have been further from the basketball spotlight.
While she’s aware of the school’s challenges, Vidaurri plans to make the most of each and every students’ strengths. “I’m meeting with everyone I can to learn about the gifts of the students,” she said.
She’s been sharing her vision of renewal with parents, including those who were wary of the changes.
“I knew that there were challenges here. That did not affect my drive,” Vidaurri said.
Some were concerned that the school would lose some of its pride if the gym was not full of fans there to see the star players, but Vidaurri wants to focus on the self-esteem of all the students and help them find their own God-given role.
As members of the administration were replaced over the summer, the players’ enrollment status remained unknown to the school, and its parent university, until school began on Aug. 14, according to UIW Provost Emerita Denise Doyle.
“Their comings and goings are not up to them,” Doyle said. She has heard that the boys are enrolled in a school in Kentucky, where they play not for their high school, DeSalles High School, but for an elite team housed within the school, the Aspire Basketball Academy.
The boys, all foreign nationals, were thriving at St. Anthony, Staudt and Doyle agreed. They were fitting in, learning, and growing.
“Charles [Bassey] was an outstanding student,” Staudt said “He loved the religious [aspect of the school].”
While the boys themselves were “good kids,” the intrigue surrounding them had troubled Doyle.
“Everybody knows that if Charles Bassey signed into the NBA he could make millions in his first year,” Doyle said. She wondered who stood to benefit from the boy’s bright future. Auriantal runs a Dallas-based organization called Yes II Success, which identifies promising athletes from overseas and helps place them in private high schools in the United States, at times assuming guardianship of the young men. Yes II Success also runs an Adidas-sponsored summer league basketball team.
When questioned earlier this year about his intentions in bringing Bassey, Ndim, Chaput, Prosper, and Persad to St. Anthony, Auriantal said the young men benefitted from the school's character education, academics, and community.
“The success the boys are having are not basketball-related,” he told the Rivard Report via email in January. “The success comes from the people they are around every day and support they are receiving. Those are regular boys that chose to be around good people who truly care about who they are and how well they are doing academically.”
Nonetheless, when his position was eliminated and funding for extensive elite tournament travel was cut off, Auriantal took his players elsewhere.
“We knew that we could not continue supporting that kind of travel,” Doyle said. “That kind of program needs a whole lot more financial backing than St. Anthony could afford.”
The kind of elite tournaments in which players like Bassey are expected to compete are often expensive, involving fees and cross-country travel. Even with sponsorships, the tournaments are a considerable expense, Doyle explained.
Like many Catholic schools, St. Anthony struggled with enrollment, Doyle said. UIW gave declining enrollment as the official reason for not renewing Escobedo’s contract.
“Across the nation, Catholic school enrollment is declining because of charter school rush,” Escobedo said. He is now the principal at another Catholic school, Holy Cross of San Antonio, his alma mater.
While neither Doyle nor Escobedo could speak to the intent of those who brought the promising basketball players to St. Anthony in the first place, at least a few in the administration had hoped the attention the basketball program drew would boost enrollment. Escobedo said that when it came to basketball, he did as he was told. A San Antonio Express-News report in June tied the decision to former UIW trustee Mike Beucler and the Beucler Family Partnership, which paid for Bassey's school fees.
“I wish [the decision-making] would begin and end at the school building,” Escobedo said. He indicated that it does not.
When Ochoa stepped down from his position as dean of preparatory programs, it was Staudt who assumed oversight of St. Anthony and Incarnate Word High School and made a critical assessment of the basketball program.
An all-star basketball program had done nothing for enrollment, which continued to drop. For every student who wanted to practice with elite athletes, another did not want to sit on the bench or go to a school that didn't prioritize his or her extracurricular interests, Doyle said.
In an effort to cater to the basketball team, the school had pulled out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), the largest interscholastic league for independent schools in the state. With that, the team lost the ability to compete against its peers in many academic and smaller athletic arenas. TAPPS was investigating St. Anthony’s basketball team to determine if the players had been provided improper incentives to play for the school.
The school joined the Texas Christian Athletic League (T-CAL), considered by some to be an “outlaw league” with more lenient eligibility rules. Vidaurri said that she has not yet considered what to do about the league situation. Schools that leave TAPPS must apply for re-admission, which takes a number of years.
Whatever the school decides to do, Vidaurri wants to proceed with all students in mind. Athletics, academics, public service, and leadership all will be celebrated at St. Anthony, she said.
“Coming here is going to be one of the best choices for a Catholic college preparatory school.”