From Fishburne to the Windy City

The three future big men in Moore's program all hail from Fishburne Military Academy.
The three future big men in Moore's program all hail from Fishburne Military Academy.

Aug. 22, 2012

By Bethany Short, UIC Athletic Communications

The day begins at 6:00 a.m., to the sound of a trumpet. The cadets pull themselves out of bed, get dressed and proceed outside for formation. They eat breakfast, have a brief study time, then it's off to class. Afterward is lunch, followed by one to two hours in the weight room and then a three-to-four-hour practice. The cadets eat dinner and then finish homework or have free time, depending on how diligent they each were earlier in the day. The lights go out and everything is silent by 10:00 p.m.

That was what a typical day was like for UIC basketball players Will Simonton, Matt Gorski and Jake Wiegand, when they each attended Fishburne Military School. The school, located in Waynesboro Va., offers academic, military, and athletic education to grades 7-12, with most students attending for an average of three years. The post-graduate program is for basketball players only, and while participating in this program, the cadets take two college-level classes and have the option of taking an SAT prep course.

Simonton, Gorski, and Wiegand made the choice to participate in the postgraduate basketball program directly after graduating high school for the purpose of improving their basketball games in preparation for college. Simonton attended Fishburne from 2010-11, while Gorski and Wiegand attended the school together during the 2011-12 academic year.

The cadets in the basketball program spent every moment in the company of their teammates, sun up to sun down. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they wore Class B uniforms--a white shirt and navy blue pants. On Tuesday and Thursday, the cadets donned ACUs, which is the camouflaged combat uniform currently used by the United States Army. They were required to be dressed in clothing provided by the school, even when simply walking the hallways of their living quarters. Two cadets lived together in a room with open dressers, metal bed frames, and military blankets on the beds. There was one desk and a window on the door to the room, to ensure that all activity could be monitored.



Simonton, a sophomore center at UIC, chose Fishburne because he was in the younger half of his high school class and didn't feel like he had yet reached his maximum physical potential.

Meanwhile, Gorski, an incoming freshman center, chose to attend Fishburne because he wanted to gain a good, solid year of focusing on basketball and school work to make sure he was ready for the college grind.

Wiegand, an incoming freshman power forward and Gorski's teammate at Fishburne, made the choice to attend the military academy because it provided him a myriad of options and the opportunity to find a university where he felt comfortable. Although each player's reasoning for going to the school was slightly different, the ultimate goal was the same: to better themselves as student-athletes and as people.

To Simonton, Fishburne was a means of becoming more disciplined and more competitive. All 16 members of the basketball team did everything together, which, at times, made for a charged atmosphere. What's important is that it taught them how to bond and connect as a team. "The guys on my team were family and it was important to be close with them," Simonton said. As for building discipline, Fishburne was crucial. "It really helped me with organization, tidiness and structure, which I wanted to continue into college. It gave me a sense of responsibility. We were held accountable for every little thing."

Overall, Simonton described his time at Fishburne as an incredibly humbling experience. As for building discipline on the court, Fishburne head coach Ed Huckabee was precise in everything he did. Because Huckabee is a former college coach, he has a firm grasp on what colleges expect and trains his cadets and prospective student-athletes accordingly.

Gorski attended Fishburne to make him more focused on and off the court in preparation for the rigors of college basketball. He had several NCAA Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school, but chose to attend Fishburne because he didn't feel mentally prepared for college. "Teachers and coaches expect you to have your work done, and for it to be done on time without any excuses," Gorski said. "They don't take any nonsense. But having stuff done early was a plus, because then we'd have more time for ourselves. The whole experience was really good for me."

Despite the rigorous training, the guys always managed to have fun. "We were always laughing and playing pranks on each other," Gorski said. "Of course I missed my friends and family back home, but we got to really connect as a group. I feel that helped our development as basketball players too."

For Wiegand, Fishburne was a place to mature and to hone in on his work ethic, and his teamwork skills. Fishburne's basketball program taught him to pay more attention to defense, watch more film and become a true student of the game. It also taught him to play well with and get along with many different personalities. "My education [at Fishburne] was good," Wiegand said. "The professors and coaches were on top of it. They knew what they were doing and taught us well. It really prepared me for the courses I'm taking now and for the adjustment to college basketball. Because no one knew what we were going through except those other 14-15 guys on the team, it created a bond."

Fishburne's basketball program was set up similar to a Division I college basketball program. They went over scouting reports, had daily film sessions and long practices. "Fishburne produces a lot of quality players," said Simonton. "The program was based off what colleges want to see in players, and that's how they trained their athletes."

Despite differences in location, upbringing and personality, all three players ended up in the same city, attending the same university and playing for the same coach. For Simonton, Fishburne taught him about being disciplined and competitive. For Gorski, it was about learning to balance ambition and fun. For Wiegand the experience was about learning how to be a great teammate. The reason each player gave for choosing UIC, however, was the same: the support they received from the team and the coaching staff, but primarily from head coach Howard Moore.

"The main reason I came to Chicago was the really great, supportive coaching staff," Gorski said. "All the guys on the team were great too, but I really came because Coach Moore showed his true colors to me on my visit. There was something about everything that I was attracted to about UIC. They showed me the kind of things I was looking for."

Simonton echoed his teammate's sentiments-- "We all saw the same thing in him [Moore]. He's well respected and comes from a great background. His system fit for all of us."

Fishburne's postgraduate program not only prepares its cadets for the immediate future of college athletics, but also for the years that follow in their respective careers. Simonton wants to play professionally after college and then go into coaching. He feels the sense of structure that he learned while attending the military school will be invaluable as a coach. "My experience there taught me that everybody learns differently," Simonton said.

Gorski's dream is to play professional basketball and eventually open a gym for underprivileged kids, which will allow him to teach them the importance of both work and play.

Wiegand's ultimate goal is to graduate from UIC with a degree in criminal justice and collect as many awards on the basketball court for UIC as possible. "Ultimately I just want to better myself as a person and help this program become a consistent winner," Wiegand said.

Fishburne took three student-athletes who came from different places, and worked with them to bring them closer to a common center. The choice to attend Fishburne was about moving beyond comfort, ease and an individualistic mentality and learning to play as well and as ungrudgingly as possible. It was the road less traveled.

From the sound of the trumpet in the morning to lights out at night, Fishburne taught these players how to be stronger together, both on and off the court. A new era at UIC is starting for them, and the skills they learned at Fishburne will have a monumental impact on where they go from here.