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Crater's Bittle transfers to California academy

CENTRAL POINT — Balancing a heavy heart with an optimistic view toward an expected upgrade in training opportunities for his senior year, five-star Crater High center Nate Bittle announced Wednesday that he will be transferring for the 2020-21 school year to Prolific Prep, a college-preparatory basketball academy in Napa, California.

The 6-foot-11, 200-pound Bittle is ranked No. 8 on the Class of 2021 ESPN 100 and recently trimmed his list of prospective schools to Arizona, Gonzaga, Oregon and UCLA. He is the highest rated recruit out of Southern Oregon since Kyle Singler was the nation’s No. 4 recruit in 2007.

Combined with the Oregon School Activities Association’s move to delay the start of all sports until 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns and a lack of extensive training opportunities in the state since March due to safety protocols, the Bittle family felt as if they simply had no choice but to make a move to support the 17-year-old’s goal of one day making it to the NBA.

“This is a bittersweet day,” said Nate’s father Ryan Bittle. “Definitely as a family sending your kid away a year before you thought is tough, but it’s ultimately the best for him.”

“It’s ultimately about what Nathan’s goals are,” he added, “and with the pandemic going on and COVID and gyms behind shut down, we’re having to do a lot of work just on our own and missing five or six months of super high level basketball without being at USA training camps and all his Under Armour practices (with his West Coast Elite AAU team).”

The younger Bittle has shown incremental growth between each of his high school seasons and having lost plenty of training time already, it just didn’t make sense to chance that Oregon would even be able to follow through with its eight-week plan for a basketball season from Jan. 11-March 7.

Basketball, mind you, remains on the prohibited list of sports after falling into the full-contact spectrum per rulings by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority. There still are no assurances that the proposed 14-game regular season in 2021 will take place.

“We just feel as a family at the time that’s going on right now, it’s the best move for Nathan just to continue to work really hard and be challenged and become a better basketball player,” said Ryan Bittle. “Ultimately there’s no finish line, we’ve got to keep getting better, so we can’t just wait four or five months to wonder if there’s going to be a season or if there is it’s a super-small season. As a family decision, that’s what it ultimately came down to really.”

Boasting a 7-5 wingspan and guard-like skills due to his deft 3-point shooting stroke, passing and dribbling abilities, Bittle was the Class 5A state player of the year this past season for Crater after averaging 25.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.5 blocks, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals.

A proven rim protector with good timing and control while blocking shots, Bittle tied his own all-classification state tournament record last year with 10 blocks against South Albany in the state quarterfinals before the event was abruptly halted due to the coronavirus.

Although it is based in California and does play some games there, Prolific Prep is a nationally traveling team that reached as high as No. 2 in the nation in last year’s high school polls. The school most recently hired Mark Phelps to take over as its basketball coach. Phelps is a former associate coach at the University of Arizona (2015-19) who has also coached Bittle during his AAU play with West Coast Elite.

“Ryan and Nate, we’ve been in communication for a while now just kind of trying to figure out what’s best for Nate under our current circumstances,” said Crater boys basketball coach Chris Schmerbach. “Just looking at all the different opportunities that were out there, this seems to be the best thing for Nathan, for sure.”

The Bittle family met again with Schmerbach to finalize plans for Wednesday’s announcement in what could only be described as an emotional time for all involved.

“For me that’s the bigger part of it because you get into this thing for relationships and memories,” said Schmerbach, choking back tears. “I’ve known Nate since he was a sixth grader and he’s not just one of my players, he’s part of my family.”

That said, even Schmerbach knew how tied his hands have been as a basketball coach during the pandemic and that, even as the Comets are prepping for the upcoming season, there are no guarantees that can be offered up that could change the current scenario.

“It’s a tough situation when you’ve been with a kid so long and seen him grow and develop and just being part of that journey with him,” added the coach. “But when you look at taking yourself out of the situation and trying to figure out what’s best for Nathan by putting him first, this is a no-brainer really. The academy that he’s going to go to is just going to be top-notch with excellent coaching and training, and it’s just going to help push him and elevate the talent that he has and give him a boost going toward the goals that he has set forth for himself.”

Were it not for the COVID circumstances, Ryan Bittle said there was no way his son would be leaving Crater.

“Prolific Prep has been calling me since Nathan’s freshman year, along with multiple other prep schools, and it’s always been a hard ‘No’ to all of them,” said Ryan Bittle. “But you know how prep schools are and just like the colleges, they don’t give up and they want the best players at their programs.”

Schmerbach said he has always appreciated the Bittle family for how they’ve handled Nate’s recruitment through it all.

“He’s been recruited by these national preps ever since he was a freshman, because that’s just the kind of talent he is,” said Schmerbach. “Him and his family have been so loyal. A year ago you never could imagine that you’re encouraging a once in a lifetime player to leave because that’s what’s best for him, but it’s where we are unfortunately and you can control only what you can control.”

The Bittle family had been looking at a few different prep schools before the news broke recently of Phelps’ hiring at Prolific Prep. Susanne Bittle, Nate’s mother, had been at the West Coast Elite practices and believed her son had a good rapport with Phelps, and she was also impressed with his organized practices and attention to detail.

Ryan Silver, the director and founder of the West Coast Elite Under Armour program, brought in Phelps when Arizona let his contract expire in June 2019. Arizona had previously removed Phelps from the team in February 2019 after he was reportedly accused of altering the transcripts of former UA recruit Shareef O’Neal, an accusation Phelps’ attorney vehemently denied.

Phelps was head coach at Drake before joining Sean Miller’s Arizona staff in 2015.

After several conversations, the Bittle family went to Napa two weekends ago and met with Phelps and got a good look at what the structure would be at Prolific Prep as well as watch Nate go through a couple workouts on campus.

“We have a lot of faith in coach Phelps because coach Silver has a lot of faith in coach Phelps,” said Ryan Bittle, “so that’s where we felt Nathan would benefit the best and continue to improve his basketball skills.”

Having already settled on a final four of potential landing spots, the move has everything to do with Bittle’s progression as a player and student athlete and not about exposure.

“It’s a great opportunity for him just to continue to get better,” said Ryan Bittle. “We’re not worried about who’s going to see him, we’re already down to our top four. The ultimate goal now is being prepared to step foot on a Division I college basketball court and produce. Having coach Phelps there, Nathan’s not going to not know what a Division I practice is going to look like and he’s not going to be surprised because coach Phelps is going to treat it like it’s a Division I college practice.”

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneCrater's Nate Bittle drives to the hoop for 2 points in the 1st quarter.