A Tucson football program geared toward helping high school graduates prepare for college had some major fumbles in its first season, former players say.
Arizona Prep Sports Academy has generated complaints from teenage athletes and their parents, who say organizers failed to deliver on promised offerings including SAT prep, a life-skills course and game film to help attract interest from college recruiters.
Some former participants say their time at Arizona Prep — now called Tucson Tech — left them in debt, with black marks on their credit reports or behind in their academic plans and worse off athletically. One parent has filed complaints about the school’s practices with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Trade Commission. Some former players are so demoralized they say they don’t want to play football again.
“It’s not for me anymore,” said 19-year-old Gewann Frazier, a 2015 graduate of Chandler High School, whose football team was the state champion his senior year. He left Arizona Prep after about seven weeks when he was recruited to play for Scottsdale Community College, but then decided his heart wasn’t in it.
“My passion for the game just went down so low from being in Tucson. I miss it, of course. It’s been my lifestyle for eight years.”
Arizona Prep athletic director Sharon Shalosky launched the program last year. Her husband, Jeff Pichotta, was head football coach to 70 high school graduates from across the country who enrolled last year. Both are certified educators in Arizona.
Shalosky said she and her husband are devoted to helping kids who may otherwise get left behind, and that they don’t benefit financially from what they do.
“When you stick your neck out, people will always try and tear you down,” she said via email. “We have already seen many successes but we do not use students to try and defend us. They need to concentrate on their lives.”
The Star asked to interview former players who were satisfied with their Arizona Prep experience or current players at Tucson Tech, but the couple did not provide them. The team was scheduled to play its first game Saturday at Phoenix College.
“PREP SCHOOL” definitions vary
Players say Arizona Prep billed itself as a post-high school “prep school.” Such schools typically help high school graduates boost their grades or take additional classes to qualify for college sports.
Some participants want an extra season of competition to get stronger and add to their highlight reel, hopefully catching the eye of a recruiter from a four-year school or junior college. As long as prep school players only take college courses part-time, they can delay starting their eligibility “clock.” NCAA Division I athletes are allotted five calendar years to play four seasons.
No governing body oversees prep schools, a term that can describe an amateur sports team whose players have the option to enroll in academic courses on their own and, like Arizona Prep, compete against junior colleges or Division III schools. It can also describe a competitive sports program that offers in-house academics and competition in a formal conference, such as Middlebrooks Academy in Los Angeles.
Middlebrooks offers classes for grades 6-12, boys and girls basketball teams, and a postgraduate prep program. Its founder established a regional conference to compete against other West Coast prep schools.
“How the school chooses to set itself up — the model runs the gamut,” said founder William Middlebrooks, a music producer with a passion for coaching and a desire to give more kids a chance at college. He says he spent $250,000 to launch the prep school five years ago.
The Tucson Tech website says that, in 2015, Shalosky and Pichotta self-funded 40 “full-ride waivers” covering school tuition, which they valued at $10,000. Other participants got partial scholarships.
“I paid $3,000 and got nothing,” said Cathi Mulroy of Goodyear, whose son, Zach, played for Arizona Prep last year. The scholarship funded 70 percent of the $10,000 tuition and was to cover SAT prep courses and a life-skills curriculum, valued at $5,000 on the program’s website. Those classes never happened, Mulroy said.
“My son played the games, but they did not do anything they (described) in the contract,” she said.
Shalosky and Pichotta have filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy twice since 2000, but Shalosky said she is still able to fund the business personally.
“Any reasons for personal bankruptcies have nothing to do with my business or my ability to fund the business, which I started from my retirement funds,” she said in an email.
Overly generous financial aid can be a red flag that a coach underestimated the cost of running a prep school, Middlebrooks said. When that happens, promised benefits sometimes fail to materialize, he said.
For players and their parents, “The first question you better ask is, ‘How can you afford to give me financial aid?’” Middlebrooks said.
Former students and their parents say Shalosky and Pichotta misrepresented Arizona Prep’s relationships with local schools and athletic facilities to lend credibility to their program.
Last year, Arizona Prep touted an affiliation with Pima Community College, taking potential recruits on unofficial campus tours and telling them they would be playing on fields there, former players said.
For Frazier, it was a big selling point.
At the time, he figured, “If Pima’s backing them, they must be doing something right.”
Pima and Arizona Prep signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding laying the foundation for a partnership, but Shalosky and Pichotta never followed through, college spokeswoman Libby Howell said. The couple inquired about using the college’s East Campus field, but was told it was in disrepair and would no longer be used for football, Howell said.
The partnership would have connected Arizona Prep students who enrolled at Pima with advisers and provided them extra support to improve the kids’ chances of success, Howell said. It also let the program use a mailbox at Pima. But Shalosky and Pichotta never told Pima which of their players were enrolling, Howell said. The school heard from the couple “sporadically,” but couldn’t get in touch with them because their phone number didn’t work and they didn’t respond to emails, she said.
“We can’t offer students anything if we don’t know who they are,” she said.
Shalosky said in an email that she provided the school with a list of Arizona Prep students at the beginning of the Pima partnership and multiple times afterwards. But she said it was up to students “to take advantage of this opportunity.” She said she met with students in her make-shift “office” in the Pima cafeteria area.
“Although there were many bugs to be worked through concerning this partnership, and much could be improved by the both of us, we are very grateful for all Pima East did for us,” she wrote. “The fact is, the students in our program were given a great opportunity for success through this partnership and most chose to take advantage, while a few did not.”
Eric Cohens, 18, flew to Tucson from Norwalk, Connecticut, a week after his high school graduation to play for Arizona Prep. Pichotta had contacted Cohens’ football coach about offering the defensive end a “full ride,” Cohens said.
Cohens said he regrets that he assumed that included housing, because he ended up paying thousands in rent. It was his first time away from home, and with no transportation, he had no way to get to Pima to take classes — he thought he’d be living closer to campus — and could rarely get to the gym to work out. The SAT prep course his parents had expected never happened, either. He said the only benefit was the friendships he made with other players.
“It wasn’t a good experience. I was mainly going out there thinking I was gonna get my grades better, get a little more exposure, but none of that happened,” he said. “Half of the stuff they promised us was never delivered.”
Shalosky said Arizona Prep determined it didn’t have to offer the promised SAT courses and life-skills curriculum because Pima agreed to provide the same or similar programs to Arizona Prep kids who enrolled there.
“As the partnership progressed, Pima was so excited to partner with us that they included all of the above in the MOU agreement so we would not have to do it ourselves,” she wrote.
The memorandum of understanding does not say that Pima would provide SAT prep courses, but it does say the college would offer workshops on topics such as “student success tips, career exploration and financial planning.”
Howell said Pima was unaware that Arizona Prep had told players they would get SAT help.
NO PHYSICAL LOCATION
The articles of incorporation filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission for Tucson Tech and Arizona Prep — two separate nonprofits — list the companies’ physical address as Pima’s East Campus, 8181 E. Irvington Road. Pima’s general counsel recently told Shalosky to remove the address from the Arizona Prep listing, Howell said. Tucson Tech’s address has already been changed.
Former players say organizers provided no space for studying, so they spent a lot of time hanging around their apartments — a far cry from the rigorous program they say was advertised.
“They boasted 5-to-1 teacher ratio,” said Chris Crider of Orlando, Florida. His son, James, 19, played wide receiver for Arizona Prep last year. “There was no oversight, there was no guidance, there was no school. My son was just sitting in an apartment, waiting for practice.”
In June, Crider filed an identity theft complaint with the FTC against Shalosky and Pichotta. He said Shalosky used his son’s Social Security number to set up a TEP account in James’ name when he was moving into an apartment, racking up $700 in unpaid electricity bills without his knowledge and marring his credit rating.
Crider also submitted a complaint to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, outlining what he described as Arizona Prep’s misleading tactics and unfulfilled promises.
For Rafael Sanchez, who coached Crider at Arizona Prep last year, the electricity issue was disturbing enough that he decided not to coach for Tucson Tech this year.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth,” said Sanchez, a Cholla High School alum who played football at Pima.
Sanchez said Crider has the talent to play Division I football and potentially to play professionally.
“He just has that factor — that ‘I’m gonna make it’ factor,” he said.
Shalosky declined to comment on the situation involving the Criders.
The newer incarnation of Arizona Prep appears to be taking a different approach.
Tucson Tech is focused on preparing at-risk, disadvantaged kids for college, giving them “the life skills, academic training and athletic competition necessary for success during college,” the website says. Targeted students include “overlooked athletes,” homeless students, those aging out of foster care and “Dreamers,” children raised in this county by undocumented immigrants. Shalosky said she is starting the process for accreditation as a private college for culinary arts and hotel management.
She and Pichotta have leased the top floor of the Broadmoor Center at 181 S. Tucson Blvd., which the website refers to as the “learning center” for students taking online accredited classes. They have also leased a housing complex, complete with industrial-style kitchen and communal areas, at 1130 W. Miracle Mile. The Gospel Rescue Mission occupied the space previously.
The Pima County Health Department said the kitchen has been licensed as a fixed-food establishment, which allows Tucson Tech to cook food and serve it on-site.
The food served comes from donations to the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Food bank CEO Michael McDonald said Tucson Tech signed an “agency agreement,” effective as of July, allowing it to take food for their low-income students.
For Arizona Prep students, the housing setup last year was rife with confusion. Most players stayed at an east-side apartment complex called The View at Catalina at the suggestion of Pichotta, who had contacted the apartment management about accommodating the athletes.
Some two-bedroom, unfurnished apartments housed six players, former players say. Multiple apartments had the electricity turned off because players didn’t realize they were responsible for paying the utilities, resulting in players doubling up in the apartments that still had power. They were told to sign leases themselves, even those whose scholarship agreements specified their rent was covered.
At least two players who were on full scholarship, with rent covered, say they ended up with $2,000 in unpaid rental payments on their credit report.
Management at the apartment complex declined to comment on the housing arrangement. Shalosky said all students knew that utilities weren’t covered.
Arizona Prep practiced at Palo Verde Park, which has goal posts but no lines on the field. That was a disappointment to some players, who expected an official field.
“It was just embarrassing,” said Zach Mulroy, 19, who was hoping his time playing at Arizona Prep would get him noticed by small colleges. “There were people walking around. We’d have to leave when the Pop Warner team was there.”
Mulroy, from Goodyear, is now working on his associate’s degree in psychology at Estrella Mountain Community College and is putting last year behind him.
“It kind of made me not want to do football anymore,” he said. “That one bad experience kind of just messed it up. It was kind of my last chance and so I was just like, this really did not work out at all.”
James Crider said academics were the only thing holding him back from playing collegiately straight out of high school. He accepted a full ride to Arizona Prep because he thought it would be an affordable way to address his academic ineligibility without starting his eligibility clock, he said. The letter of intent he signed said his scholarship would cover Arizona Prep’s tuition, “room rent” and up to six credits at Pima.
But Crider never took those classes. Once he arrived in Tucson, Shalosky and Pichotta told him he’d have to take online classes instead and pay for them himself, he said.
This year he enrolled full time at Pima and is playing for the football team. He’s hoping to use only one year of his eligibility and still have three years to play Division I ball once he qualifies academically.
Player C.J. Edwards of Orlando said his main motivation to attend Arizona Prep was to get game film he could send to colleges that might recruit him. But he and other students said the website where Pichotta posted the season’s film was shut down before he could access it.
“I was promised exposure,” said Nick Sweet, 19, who played wide receiver for Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe. “There was no exposure whatsoever. They weren’t sending any film out.”
Shalosky said every player had an account on the website Hudl, a video-hosting tool sports teams can use to analyze game film and promote their athletes. Shalosky said they kept the accounts active until one month after the season ended.
“The players that were deactivated were no longer on the team for reasons per our school policies,” she wrote.
Ultimately, Edwards said, the experience at Arizona Prep Sports Academy didn’t serve the players.
“It kind of pulled us back,” he said, “instead of pushed us forward.”
Contact reporter Emily Bregel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4233. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel