By Maurice Patton
COLUMBIA — It’s a rare route for most local athletes, but Carter Szydlowski and Justin Buchmann are banking on a prep school stop to get them where they want to be.
The Columbia Central football standouts announced recently they will attend at Tennessee Valley Prep Sports Academy in Huntsville for post-graduate competition.
“I didn’t want to settle,” said Szydlowski, a 6-2, 285-pound two-way lineman who was named a Class 5A all-state performer by the Tennessee Sports Writers Association last week. “I had opportunities to walk on … Not that I was ungrateful, but I felt I could play at a higher level.
“I played a kid (Dickson County’s Tre’vonn Rybka) that’s going to Kentucky and tore him up. I played a guy from Shelbyville (Gary Smith III) and locked him down; he’s playing at Duke. Any time I’ve played that type competition, I’ve competed and dominated.”
Along with a series of NAIA scholarship offers, Szydlowski had been offered preferred walk-on status at both North Alabama and Western Carolina. His coach agrees that better offers are likely in a year not marred by a pandemic.
“He’s a young senior; he doesn’t turn 18 until August,” Central coach Jason Hoath said. “I wish I had him another year. Going through the (recruiting process), I don’t think he got the looks he deserved, the opportunities he should have gotten. He weighed his options out and came across Tennessee Valley Prep.
“He missed out on summer camps because of COVID. Another year of film, in the weight room, hopefully will open up the door for some more opportunities for him. Being such a young senior and (with) a lot of natural ability, a hard worker, a good player, I think it’s a good decision for him.”
Established in 2018, Tennesseee Valley Prep heads into its fourth season of post-graduate football and men’s basketball competition. The school instituted a women’s basketball program last year, and expects to add soccer and track soon.
“We’ve primarily had kids from Huntsville, from Alabama and Georgia, and because I’m originally from Tennessee, I want to use my connections to try to reach out in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville,” second-year football coach Adrian Allen said. “I want to expand our footprint as far north as we can.
“With the NCAA and the NAIA making the decision to give athletes an additional year (of eligibility, because of the pandemic), prep schools are going to be important because there aren’t going to be as many opportunities out there.”
As long as prep school students take fewer than 12 hours of collegiate classes per semester, their eligibility at either the four-year or two-year collegiate level will not be impacted. Allen said TVP students typically enroll for six to nine hours at Calhoun Community College in Huntsville, but Szydlowski and Buchmann can take classes at the Fayetteville campus of Motlow State and avail themselves of the Tennessee Promise program.
“We want to expand our brand up into the Middle Tennessee area,” Allen said. “I would think this would be a viable opportunity for a lot of those kids.”
Buchmann, who had interest from multiple small schools near his native Michigan prior to joining the Central program this fall, rushed for 344 yards and seven touchdowns with the Lions along with 339 receiving yards and two scores. He and Szydlowski grew up as childhood friends.
“I heard about the prep school route, heard it was really expensive until I heard about Tennessee Valley Prep,” Szydlowski said. “It’s affordable and close to home. It allows me to chase my dream and get where I can compete. Everything made sense for me to make this decision.
“I’ll have the chance to be the same age as the people around me for the first time.”