Inside a spacious gymnasium with black and red walls, over a dozen young basketball players are giving the court floor a workout.
Quickly shifting from side to side, the boys try to perfect their defensive stances as coach Eddie Menzel hollers to keep up the effort.
With their drill over, Menzel huddles the players and repeats his mantra: "Work hard."
Menzel's practices offer a glimpse into San Joaquin County's latest educational initiative: the Excel Academy, billed as a "collegiate sports and health science preparatory high school," which opened in Stockton on Aug. 14.
Located at 2720 Transworld Drive in Stockton, in an industrial area near the county Office of Education, Excel is open to sevenththrough 12th-graders. Blending athletic training and academics as part of its curriculum, the free public charter school is one of the first of its kind in California.
Just one door away from Excel's athletic center, which also features a corner full of workout machines donated by InShape Health Club, are intimate classrooms with brand-new equipment and textbooks downloaded onto iPads. Altogether, the school is aiming for a specific type of student: passionate about sports, but also dedicated to their studies.
"A student has to have aspirations of going to and competing in college," said the county's Superintendent of Schools Mick Founts, who spearheaded the Excel project. "We've had kids (inquire about the school who are) very interested in sports, but not interested in working hard in the classroom. This isn't for them. ... It's a specialized school, no doubt about it."
A school that has also been a subject of controversy.
Excel's staff see an innovative educational environment and parent supporters like Woodbridge's Mike Kniss think the school's concept is "much needed." Yet local public school coaches, who have had former players transfer over, see an unproven commodity — and a potentially unfair playing field in the works.
"There's little history; it's not credible enough to be proven," said Bear Creek High School boys basketball coach Eddie Hernandez. "You have people from that organization specifically targeting athletes. That's where I think the lines get crossed."
But Larissa Founts, Excel's athletic director and daughter of Mick Founts, feels the school's goals are being misrepresented by critics.
"We're not a threat to anyone. Our coaches and players don't care about a banner hanging in our gym," she said. "We want the outcome of the kids to be our banner."
'Creating a space for kids'
In its mission statement, Excel aims to provide "academic and athletic programs that meet the individual needs of committed student athletes" in preparation for "athletic competition, college and life."
The school's inaugural enrollment is about 150 students from across the county; its funding is based on average daily attendance, like that of other public schools. Excel offers specialized athletic training along with a curriculum of core classes, following a block schedule system. Students will take four classes each semester, one in a sport of their choice — including elements of nutrition and sports medicine — and three other academic subjects.
Currently, Excel is offering volleyball, wrestling, softball, baseball, soccer, golf and basketball. All of Excel's coaches, who also teach at the school, have played their sport recently at a collegiate level or above.
Mick Founts believes Excel will provide a unique space for college-minded students interested in a specific field — much like in the county's Venture Academy Family schools for performing arts, agriculture and career and technology.
"When we have a mock trial team, they get the best instruction a team can get," Mick Founts said. "It should be the same of athletes. Our philosophy is that we should create places for kids. It's a way to try different educational options for students."
Yet Tokay softball coach Robert Harmon sees a more problematic project at work. He believes that Excel's mission statement puts it at odds with the California Interscholastic Federation — the state's governing body for high school athletics, of which Excel is currently an associate member.
The CIF's philosophy states that "athletic participation is secondary" to education at its member schools; it prohibits athletically motivated transfers and considers "any act, gesture or communication" to encourage students towards that end to be "undue influence."
Excel's prominent focus on sports, Harmon says, would violate those bylaws. If Tokay High put out a mission statement similar to that of Excel, he argues, "that would be considered undue influence. We could forfeit our games."
"I think the main emphasis is that ... you will play sports here. If they want to word it around that, you'll have to pretend," Harmon said. "This school seems to be in violation, bringing kids in for sports. It's like (Excel) can operate under a different set of rules."
Sac-Joaquin Section Commissioner Pete Saco admitted that an institution like Excel is unique. Saco said he was "concerned" by the mission statement and that he spoke with school administration about it during an Aug. 2 meeting.
"Any time there's a focus on athletics, it's a concern. They know it, we know it," Saco said. "We have to evaluate, see what's going on and see what happens. ... We'll keep an eye on them."
Mick Founts and the rest of Excel's staff reject the notion that they are a "sports factory" only concerned with athletics. They emphasized the school's small and collaborative learning environment, new technology and academic opportunities. One of the school's popular features, Mick Founts notes, is the chance for high school juniors and seniors to earn college credits online through Grand Canyon University.
"Anyone who has been to our orientations knows academics come first," he said. "If there's one thing guaranteed, there will be life after sports. Academically, you'll get challenged, too."
Menzel concurred, adding that his basketball players must earn at least a 3.0 grade-point average to play. His aim is for a 3.5 or higher.
"We're strict but we're fair," Menzel said. "Everything you get, you have to earn. You have to work hard."
'Take a look'
Though Excel places sports as a pillar, faculty and administration insist that the school is not actively recruiting players for competition.
"We aren't selecting kids like, 'I want that shooting guard, that point guard,'" Larissa Founts said. "We're not finding them, they're coming to us."
Excel's softball coach and English teacher Alyce Jorgensen, who played at University of the Pacific, shared the same message. She said much of the interest about Excel has been through word-of-mouth by parents and friends. The school has mainly held information sessions and put out advertisements and banners; interested students fill out an online application on the school's website and come for a campus interview.
Jorgensen believes the school's attributes — small classroom sizes, more individualized training and collaborative instruction — sell themselves
"It's a lot of word of mouth," said Jorgensen, adding that Excel has accepted students of all athletic backgrounds. "One or two families hear, they come and they love it. The kids love it and they enroll."
For Mike Kniss, that meant taking his daughter Jenna out of St. Mary's High School in Stockton, where she was a freshman standout on the Rams' softball team. Jenna Kniss carries aspirations of pitching at the Division I level, but the costs of private school tuition, along with competitive travel ball, had started to become a burden.
Mike Kniss found out about Excel from the family of a basketball player on Larissa Founts' AAU team, a non-high school competitive organization. He was initially excited about a place where Jenna could receive athletic training, guidance in the college athletic process and get challenged academically, for no cost.
"They hit me with, 'What if this was available to you?' I had never heard anything like it," said Mike Kniss, who also sent his son John, an incoming seventh-grader, to Excel. "It's like a godsend for us. ... The concept itself, I'd like to see it grow."
So much so that he and his daughter had let others know about Excel — including Laura Lopez and Britany Heinle, both incoming juniors who played for Tokay High before trying Excel.
"I definitely spread the word," Jenna Kniss said. "They were really happy. They're just stoked. The first day when we went in, (it was like) 'Okay, I'm sold.'"
But Harmon and Hernandez fear that such enthusiastic word of mouth — between both students and parents — can fall under the category of undue influence that is prohibited under CIF rules.
Further, they argue, Excel's focus on sports may serve as a driver — even if unintentionally.
"It's typically parent-driven. They all want their kids on the most successful team," Harmon said. "If this pans out the way they're advertising, then they can entice the most competitive players for their schools."
Saco confirmed that direct enticement of students to transfer is not allowable within CIF rules and "will be stopped if discovered." Yet Mike Kniss feels that simply letting others know about an opportunity should not be considered illegitimate.
"What I say to people is, 'Do yourself a favor, go look for yourself,'" he said. "If you're not happy with where you're at, do yourself a favor and go take a look."
For all of the discussion that Excel has garnered, the program is still in its infancy and its impact in the competitive arena has yet to be determined.
As an associate member of the CIF, the soonest that Excel's teams (the Pumas) can apply for league membership will be the 2013-14 season. Given the school's small enrollment — Mick Founts said about 300 total students will be the upper limit — Excel would likely start out in a Division VII league.
During this inaugural season, Excel's competitive teams are not playoff-eligible and are on their own in terms of putting together a competitive schedule. Menzel said his basketball team has over 20 games lined up, including large local tournaments like the Tracy-West Tournament. Jorgensen, meanwhile, has yet to put together a complete softball slate for this spring.
Larissa Founts said Excel's incoming students understand that they will be helping get the program off the ground.
"The kids we're getting now are our pioneers," she said.
Still, Hernandez thinks the school remains a gamble at this early stage.
"Who knows what it's going to be like? It's a brand-new place. This is year one," he said. "If it was my kid, I wouldn't take my kid out ... for a situation that's not proven yet. No one really knows."
Indeed, Mike Kniss opted not to wait and find out after admittedly taking a "leap of faith" on the school. He pulled Jenna and John out of Excel about a week into the semester; Lopez and Heinle have also left Excel to return to Tokay. Though his kids liked their teachers and coaches, Mike Kniss said the school right now does not provide the advanced academics and athletic competition he was looking for.
"The classes are not at (Jenna's) level," he said. "You only have so many teachers, so many kids. How are you going to meet everybody's needs?"
Kniss will enroll Jenna and John into Lodi High and Millswood Middle School, respectively, but still feels that Excel's concept is an admirable one — especially for the development of middle school-age kids, who make up the largest group at Excel.
"I believe they have the potential to really do well," Kniss said. "I think there's a big need for this kind of thing. I hope they plant more schools, but there are a lot of uncertainties. There's probably a lot of people waiting in the wings seeing how they're going to do."