By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Levi Cook was born to be a basketball player.
The 6-foot-11, 300-pound hoops standout verbally committed to West Virginia University just a few weeks into his sophomore year at Liberty High School.
But after a season in which he averaged 23.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 3.1 steals per game and earned first-team Class AA all-state honors, the jolly giant will have a new home for his junior and senior seasons.
“Well, I’m going to go to Huntington Prep,” Cook said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
It’s been long rumored that WVU coach Bob Huggins has urged Cook to attend a prep school in advance of his enrollment in Morgantown, but Cook insists that’s not the case.
“They honestly didn’t say anything to me about it. They thought I was fine where I was at,” Cook said. “I’m sure they’ll be happy that I’m going to (Huntington) Prep, though.”
It was a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the Mountain State. One of the state’s top basketball prospects in years had decided to further his playing career with the state’s top basketball program — a program that had previously stated it would not recruit in-state basketball talent to its academy.
“(Monday night) Levi tweeted that he was leaving Liberty and I’ve always said we’d stay away from recruiting West Virginia kids, but for Levi and his family, he doesn’t need to leave the state,” Huntington Prep head coach and Mullens native Rob Fulford said. “He had made his intentions known that he would be leaving Liberty and there was no need for him to go to Florida or Maryland to develop when we’re just two hours down the road.”
Cook was being recruited by St. Mary’s Ryken in Leonardtown, Md., as well as Montverde Academy in Florida, where future Mountaineer teammate Devin Williams attended.
“I was looking to go out of state for high school,” Cook said. “It’s nice at Liberty and I had the best coaches I could ask for. It was a family decision, to play tougher competition. Huntington is obviously in state, but I was always told I couldn’t play there. I guess I can.”
Huntington Prep is a basketball-centric college preparatory school that is housed in St. Joseph Catholic. It was founded in 2009 by Fulford and his staff.
“I think the biggest thing that everyone needs to understand is that these things aren’t easy on a kid,” Fulford added. “I had heard a week ago that there were some rumblings that he was going to leave for a school in Florida or Maryland and I kind of left it at that.”
But it was Cook’s tweet on Monday night that caught Fulford’s attention.
“His grandmother reached out to us,” Fulford said, “She didn’t think it was possible for him to come here, but I think this is a little different. He had already made up his mind that he was going to leave Liberty and we saw no reason why he should have to go to Florida to develop.”
Fulford admits he hasn’t seen the towering Cook play since he was in seventh grade, but feels he will benefit from the system at Huntington Prep.
“I think it’s perfect for him. He’s coming into a situation where he’s going to be asked on a daily basis to work as hard as he can work,” Fulford said. “He’s going to have an elite strength and conditioning program. His body will change. That’s the biggest thing he needs. Our job is to get him bigger, faster and stronger. It’s not going to come easy.”
Cook’s former coach, Aaron Pauley at Liberty, agrees with Fulford’s assessment.
“His footwork is there, his work and shooting is there, his defense is there, but I think he needs to work on getting in better shape and getting in the weight room,” Pauley said. “He needs to be playing against some bigger competition.”
Cook will be battling Troy, N.Y., native Angel Delgado for playing time with The Express. The 6-8, 215 pounder currently has offers from Dayton, Florida State and Virginia.
“Delgado is being recruited by the top level teams in the country, like Kentucky and Louisville, and Levi is going to have to show up every single day and compete against guys his own size,” Fulford said. “It would hold him accountable and make him work harder.
“I’m excited to have him in the state of West Virginia and play in West Virginia and in front of WVU fans most importantly.”
Staying in state was important for Cook, who has a strong relationship with his family, and specifically his little brother, Jalen.
“I appreciate Huntington Prep,” Cook said. “I wanted to stay in state and I still want to play for the state of West Virginia and represent West Virginia.”
Even more so, Cook will have a chance to play for a national championship with Huntington Prep.
The Express have previously been denied the honor due to the school not being recognized by the WVSSAC. That won’t be the case moving forward.
“ESPN no longer needs the WVSSAC’s approval on us,” Fulford said. “Last year we were recognized by the state senate and we’ll start out the season in the top five. It’s hard for us to say from a team that loses Andrew Wiggins that we have a chance to win a national championship, but we do. That would be special for a West Virginia kid to do that.”
Fans of Cook’s in southern West Virginia will still get their chance to see the future Mountaineer. Huntington Prep is scheduled to play on ESPN during the season, and there is potential for a Huntington Prep game to be played in Raleigh County.
“We’re going to try to work that out,” Fulford said. “If Levi wants to go back and play a game in Beckley, we’d work that out. Right now our schedule is full, but we have the option to shift a couple home venues. I always like to play in Mullens and we’ll try to play one in the Beckley area. That would be a benefit for Levi.”
Even though Cook will have a new group of teammates, he wanted his former teammates know he has high expectations for them.
“I want to wish them the best of luck. I will always love Liberty and I can’t wait to see them in Charleston for states,” Cook said.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.