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Bittle grateful for support as he moves on

CENTRAL POINT — One day later and the sky didn’t fall.

Wednesday’s announcement that elite Crater High senior-to-be Nate Bittle would instead be attending Prolific Prep in Napa, California, for the 2020-21 school year took most by surprise, but Bittle said the reaction he’s gotten about his move has been nothing but positive.

“It’s been all good,” said the five-star center, who is No. 8 in the Class of 2021 ESPN 100 rankings. “(Crater boys basketball coach Chris) Schmerbach and my teammates and the whole Crater community have really been supportive of me and that means the world to me.”

Given the status of high school athletics in Oregon, which won’t officially begin until January, and the fact that there are no guarantees he will be able to even play at all once it gets to that time, Bittle and his family opted to take up a Prolific Prep offer from its new head coach, Mark Phelps, and join the college preparatory basketball academy for his final year of high school.

Although it is based in Northern California and does play some games there, “Pro Prep” as it’s most commonly referred is a powerhouse national traveling program that reached as high as No. 2 in the nation in last year’s high school polls.

Bittle said the decision to move on was not easy to make, and certainly wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for current circumstances.

“If this COVID stuff wasn’t happening,” he said, “I’d be staying and playing at Crater.”

Still, saying goodbye isn’t easy and, although he was confident people would understand, you never truly know.

Any concerns were set at ease Wednesday following his announcement.

“I appreciate it all a lot and I give a lot of thanks to the community,” said Bittle. “They’ve been behind me since I was a freshman playing varsity basketball. I’m going to definitely miss my friends and coaches and even the younger kids in Scenic Middle School and everything, but they know what’s best for me and they want me to go showcase my talents at a higher level. Everyone’s rooting for me and cheering for me and has my back and I just love having that hometown support.”

The 6-foot-11, 200-pound Bittle found himself in a precarious position in the aftermath of the pandemic shutting down his junior campaign prior to the semifinals of the Class 5A state tournament in March.

His hope was to lead Crater to its first-ever state championship, and then that would have been followed with an active spring that normally would have him working out with his fellow Comets and then also competing in AAU basketball for his West Coast Elite Under Armour squad.

Along the way, Bittle also would have taken part in various USA Basketball and elite-level camps, just doing whatever he could to further his progress toward an eventual goal of one day playing in the NBA.

“I was trying to hope that it would open up sometime here,” said Bittle, “but with the way it’s going, I don’t really know if it is.”

With COVID-19 effectively shutting down gyms and nearly all group gatherings in Oregon, as well as other parts of the nation, Bittle has done what he can to not miss a beat as one of the nation’s best recruits, but it hasn’t been easy.

“He was doing what he could on his own,” said Ryan Bittle, Nate’s father, “and we’ve got some great people here that are part of his team, but it’s always better just to have an everyday structured plan laid out if you can.”

Bittle was the Class 5A state player of the year this past season for Crater, averaging 25.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals. He recently trimmed his list of prospective schools to Arizona, Gonzaga, Oregon and UCLA.

After a recent tour of the Prolific Prep campus and facilities, along with a good basketball workout while there, Bittle was sold on the idea of joining the academy.

“It’s all basketball there,” said the 17-year-old standout. “There’s no distractions, it’s just everything is all basketball, and that’s something I really like. It’s wake up at 7 a.m. for basketball, then school, then another basketball workout and then you’re going home, eating dinner and then coming back to the gym from 9-10 p.m. for shooting and then going back home. It’s that routine on a daily schedule and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Bittle said he met a couple teammates on his visit two weeks ago and has high hopes for how competitive Prolific Prep will be in its upcoming season.

“It’s a great program and they’ve put a lot of players into big schools and everything,” he said. “They’re all just hard-working kids so that’s just something I wanted to be part of. It’s going to be awesome just traveling the country and playing against other really good teams.”

Phelps, who is a former associate coach at the University of Arizona (2015-19) and also coached Bittle during his AAU play with West Coast Elite, inherits a roster that now includes four-star guard Arterio Morris (a Memphis commit), four-star forward Kamari Lands and five-star center Bittle.

“Nate’s pretty excited,” said Ryan Bittle. “He’s kind of like a chameleon, too. He’s always just fit in wherever he goes, whether it’s USA basketball or new teammates with West Coast Elite. I think he’s going to do really well down there.”

An added benefit, according to the elder Bittle, is that Prolific Prep boasts a handful of players with international ties to add to his son’s experience.

“Intellectually it will be cool for him to be around guys that speak foreign languages and know multiple languages and get that international flavor,” said Ryan Bittle. “That aspect is a big positive for Nate to learn from different kids that are trying to achieve the same goals that he has.”

The drawback? When Nate Bittle gets dropped off by his family next weekend in Napa, it starts the clock for what will be the longest time the family unit has not been together. There have been a couple weeks here and there over the years due to AAU commitments, but nothing like what is expected now.

“Luckily it’s only five hours away,” said Ryan Bittle, who with wife Susanne also has a sophomore daughter Kendra and eighth-grade son Kyle. “We have a fifth-wheel trailer that we’re kind of finding a place for us down there so if anything happens or he needs Mom or Dad, we’re only five hours away which is an easy drive. We’re used to driving 10 or 12 hours and long ways for stuff so it’s not that big of a deal for us.”

Added Nate Bittle: “I’m sure I’ll get homesick at some point but they will be able to come see me on some weekends here and there. I’m close enough to home to where they can drive down and see me and far enough away to where I can just focus on improving and playing great basketball.”

As for his current Crater coaches and teammates, Bittle simply couldn’t say enough about their impact on his life and how hopeful he is for their own bright futures ahead.

“I’ll definitely miss my teammates and Schmerbach probably the most out of everyone,” he said. “Just the countless hours and blood, sweat and tears that Schmerbach has put into me and my teammates has been great, and also just the great team experiences we’ve had traveling together and going fishing and going to do activities as a team. It really sucks to leave but I think they’ll be able to keep that carrying on while I’m gone. I’m going to be watching like every game they play from (California) so we’ll keep in touch.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Nate Bittle