SCHERERVILLE | Zoran Talley has grown in several ways since graduating from Merrillville last spring.
"I wish I knew then what I know now," said Talley, who averaged 12.7 points and 1.8 steals per game during a late-blooming senior basketball season with the Pirates.
A Times All-Area selection, Talley seemed destined to continue his career in college. He had a nice shooting touch and deft ballhanding skills. But he had neither the grades nor the test scores, thus Talley was presented a dearth of options -- none in Division 1.
"I needed to work on my grades as well as my game," Talley said. "That's why I came here."
Talley is a forward for the Midwest Elite Prep Academy Warriors, Northwest Indiana's first and only post-graduate basketball team.
The K-12 accredited school, located at 8101 Polo Club Drive, Merrillville, was founded in 2005. This year it added a post-graduate educational program and basketball team for aspiring college players.
"Not only do I feel better prepared for college, I grew a couple of inches," said Talley, who now stands at a more forward-like 6-foot-7. "Two inches may not seem that much, but that's a big difference in basketball."
Apparently, the added stature has helped garner the interest of Old Dominion, which has offered Talley a scholarship.
"Right now, I am focusing on the season and my schoolwork," said Talley, who mentioned other major programs have shown interest in him. "When we're done, that's when I'll make a decision."
The Warriors' roster includes players from four states as well as Croatia, Poland, Italy and Puerto Rico.
"I emailed (Warriors head coach Glen "Red" Heffernan) about joining the team, and he asked me to send a video," said 6-9 post player Vlatko Granic, of Vitina, Bosnia and Herzegovina. "They told me they liked what they saw, and here I am."
Like the other foreign Warriors, English is not Granic's first language as team communication remains a work in progress, especially in regards to "hoops slang." Nonetheless, the Warriors were all on the same page when they defeated Fishburne, Va., 78-69, earlier this season at a tournament at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis.
Fishburne is the No. 1 post-graduate prep team in the country.
"For a first-year team like us to beat a team like Fishburne," Heffernan said, "it's like I.U. Northwest starting up a basketball team and beating ... I.U."
Heffernan came to Midwest Elite after serving as an assistant coach at LaPorte Lalumiere, which went 58-8 over the past two seasons. Heffernan also had successful head coaching stints at Rich Central and Mather High School, led two California junior colleges, Columbia and L.A. Valley, to 20-win seasons, and was an assistant coach for several D-1 programs.
"I jumped at the opportunity as we need something like this around here," said Heffernan, who is backed by former Andrean and Valparaiso University star Chris Artis, who is the team's associate head coach, and assistant coach Ryan Ward, who also tutors the players.
"Not only do we have the staff to help boost a player's game and help raise their SAT and ACT scores, but these guys are getting more exposure," Heffernan said. "In high school, they may have had one or two coaches watch their games if they were lucky. But we've been at tournaments where there were 80 coaches present."
What players need to improve to get to the next level often varies. Deris Duncan from Noblesville has already met the grade and score requirements for most schools.
"But I needed to work more on my guard skills," said Duncan, whose team lost a buzzer-beater to eventual Class 4A state champion Carmel in last year's sectional round. "At six-five, that's where I got to concentrate."
Sometimes the position chooses you, as was the case for Artis.
"I was a 6-4 (power forward) coming out of high school," said Artis, who initially signed on to play for Eastern Washington University where he worked on his perimeter game and transitioned to small forward.
"(EWU) took a chance on me," Artis said. "I tell our players that sometimes that one offer -- though it may not be the one you wanted -- can set you on the right path."