MOUTH OF WILSON, Va. - For nearly three decades, books and basketball have developed a symbiotic relationship at Oak Hill Academy, a small boarding school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia.
The boys basketball team has been ranked nationally for the past 18 years and has captured four mythical national championships. One hundred players have moved on from Oak Hill Academy to play at Division I colleges and universities.
When people ask school president Ed F. Patton to describe the recipe for success, Patton likes to offer a quote from 1985 alum Rod Strickland.
"He told The New York Times, `You have to succeed at Oak Hill. It's only blackboards and backboards,' " Patton said. "I like that."
But the school is more than just basketball, its supporters said.
"I usually take the opportunity to remind people that, `Yes, I agree with that, but we are also a fine academic school,' " said Dennis A. Green, the school principal and coach of the boys JV team.
Oak Hill has been a fixture in Mouth of Wilson since it was founded in 1878 by the New River Baptist Association "as a school for mountain girls and boys," according to an academy brochure.
Isolated from the traffic snarls that have grown in frequency on nearby Interstate 81, Oak Hill sits on 300 acres of land relatively undisturbed except for the 18 classroom, dormitory and administrative buildings that make up the school.
Open to students in grades eight through 12, the academy offers a mix of remedial and college preparatory courses. Oak Hill has capacity for 200 students, but currently houses 131 teen-agers representing 12 states and 10 countries.
The academic results have been solid. According to Green, 43 of 45 members of last year's graduating class were accepted to colleges and universities. The remaining two graduates joined the armed forces.
"You have to study," said Dylan Vaughan, a senior from Richmond, Va. "There's nothing else to do."
Patton said the secluded nature of the school's location is a primary selling point to prospective students' parents.
Students are expected to attend classes from 8:05 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. every weekday and from 8:05 to 11:40 a.m. on Saturdays. Weeknights feature a mandatory 90-minute study hall starting at 7:30 and lights out at 10:30.
Tuition is steep with fees totaling $18,300 for the school year. Patton estimated that about 25 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid.
Like many boarding schools, Oak Hill has strict guidelines regarding use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco that could result in expulsion. Academic problems bring "lunch detention" with Green and a spot on a work-detail crew that cleans the campus.
Kevin Henline, a senior from Ellicott City, had difficulty adjusting to the environment when he arrived at Oak Hill in September 2000 after struggling academically his sophomore year at Centennial High.
"I had never been away from home for more than two weeks," Henline said. "It was so different that you wanted to go home."
To acclimate students to the rural setting, Oak Hill offers afternoon activities such as choir and an equestrian team.
But the single biggest extracurricular activity is athletics. Stephen A. Smith, the school's athletic director and boys basketball coach, estimated that about three-quarters of the student body participates in sports like baseball and tennis.
Basketball is king, though. There are three boys teams and one girls squad.
The gold team represents the pinnacle of Oak Hill basketball. It is the four-time reigning national champion.
A tour of the school gymnasium reveals four red banners announcing the national championships in 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2001; 13 banners of the more prestigious tournaments the school has claimed; and a list of the 25 McDonald's/Parade All-Americans who played for the academy.
The accomplishments are a testament to the stability of Smith, a Kentucky native who has a 488-31 record in his 17 years of coaching at the school.
Oak Hill will play less than one-third of this season's schedule at home, and has games in California, Oregon and Texas among other states. The Warriors haven't paid to play in tournaments since 1985. Smith said tournament committees that invite Oak Hill pay for the team's expenses.
For one-day tournaments, the school either earns a percentage of the tickets sold at the events or "game guarantees," a flat fee usually between $1,500 to $2,500. Smith said Oak Hill has been promised a percentage of the gate at tonight's State Farm Roundball Classic at the Towson Center.
School officials understand that the academy has prospered from basketball.
"Wherever I go, it's the best advertisement we could ever have," Patton said. "It thrills me when wherever I go, people say, `Oak Hill Academy, yes, that's the basketball school.' "