By Steve Brand, Special to the U-T
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
CARLSBAD — Cheikh Ndiaye was given a choice. Go to France to become a better basketball player or come to the United States for a good education while learning about setting screens, rebounding and improving his shot.
His father wanted him to go to France, but Ndiaye had done his research and determined he would be better off attending the Army-Navy Academy.
“When I arrived I knew no English, not a single word,” said Ndiaye, a 7-foot-1 junior from Senegal who must stoop to enter the gym. “But the people here, especially coach (John) Maffucci, made me feel welcome right away. Even the General (school President Steve Bliss) came by the second day to see me.
“At first school was really hard. Study, study, study — that’s all I did. I was told I can’t play basketball unless I study.”
Since the Army-Navy Academy is an all-boys boarding school, he didn’t have a lot of distractions — except maybe the nearby Pacific Ocean and even that reminded him of his home and family in Dakar, where he lives a short walk to the ocean.
Though Cheikh Ndiaye (pronounced Shay N-yi) had a personal tutor to help him learn English and the school offers assistance every evening for all cadets, it was difficult at first, especially on the basketball court, where he would be slow to react to instructions that he translated to English.
But this is a school that attracts students from distant lands like Colombia and China as well as from all over the United States and as close as Oceanside. It celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and the same strict standards still apply.
The cadets learn discipline and leadership skills. If even one of them is struggling, it’s only natural for the others to try to help. It costs $35,000 a year (including room and board). The teachers are available at almost any time. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness on what might be the cleanest campus in the region — maybe the nation.
“At first my dad was worried that after you graduate you have to go into the military,” said Ndiaye, who will have to miss up to a month after sustaining a concussion while taking a charge in a one-point season-opening win over El Camino. “I think he is still worried.”
Bliss, a former general in the Army, said less than 5 percent of the students go on to pursue military careers but those who do are well-schooled in military discipline. He also proudly points out that 100 percent of last year’s graduates went on to college.
As for the basketball team, that’s where Ndiaye feels most at home and he is accomplishing his original goal of becoming a better player.
“I just want to win CIF,” said the soft-spoken Ndiaye, who is still growing. “I have no personal goals, I don’t care how many points I score. My strengths are defense, rebounding and blocking shots. I don’t shoot a lot in the games, that’s not my role. I think my game has improved a lot.”
He’ll get no argument from second-year coach Tom Tarantino, who has guided big-time programs like St. Dominics in Oyster Bay, N.Y., Carlsbad and most recently The Bishop’s School.
“You can’t help but improve at a school like this,” said Tarantino. “The faculty, the administration is unbelievably dedicated. They model this school after a college and it’s a great atmosphere. The thing here that is unique is that every cadet finishes his homework that night because in the evening tutors and teachers are available.”
Tarantino has heard the rumors about taking one of Army-Navy’s residence halls and turning it into a basketball factory. It’s not going to happen, he said.
“The school treats athletes like every other potential cadet,” Tarantino said. “We get players by word of mouth, but we don’t seek out players. If someone was coming here only to play basketball he wouldn’t last very long.
“We all want to win, we all want to be in the state playoffs, but anyone coming here will have to buy into the positive atmosphere where attention to academics is No. 1. That not just talk, it’s a fact. Some people think we are a school for troubled kids and that’s not true, either.”
The team includes 6-foot-8 Colombian Jhoan Camacho, another player from Senegal, 6-6 Akhadj Diatta, in addition to 5-11 guard Devin Watson, a sophomore whose brother, Michael, was an all-section player at El Camino a few years back.
Being in Division IV, Army-Navy competes against teams like Horizon, Bishop’s and Francis Parker.
The academy, like other boarding schools, has come under intense scrutiny from the California Interscholastic Federation and its San Diego Section, but Army-Navy has never been sanctioned by those governing bodies.
Meanwhile, students like Ndiaye are thriving.
“I love it here,” he said. “I have not been home since I got here and won’t go back until I graduate. This is my family, this is my home.”
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