It was early February this year that many area seniors had signing ceremonies to announce their intentions of playing college football somewhere this coming fall.
Lost in all of those celebrations was a guy who had led Chiawana defensively at linebacker for three seasons: Caleb Weber.
Weber was named first-team All-Mid-Columbia Conference at linebacker as a Riverhawks senior in 2016. And then, for many Tri-City football fans, he just disappeared.
He had an offer after his senior season to play for the University of Delaware. He declined.
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He wanted Ivy League.
So in February, in the midst of a postgraduate year at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Caleb Weber signed a letter of intent to play football at Cornell University.
He will enter Cornell this fall as a freshman with up to five years of eligibility.
From Pasco to Jersey
How Weber ended up across the country at one of the nation’s oldest prep schools — it first opened in 1810 — is a journey and story unto itself.
It began during Weber’s senior football season at Chiawana, with the help of Caleb’s father, Jamie.
The eldest Weber son, Alex, was just completing his junior season at Penn, another Ivy League school.
Alex had mentioned to his father that while his public education was great at Chiawana, he still felt lost during his first semester as a freshman at Penn and could have used some additional help.
Alex eventually caught up with his classmates, but it was a miserable first semester.
“Alex’s roommate at the time mentioned that he had gone to a prep school between his high school and college years, and it had helped a lot,” said Jamie Weber. “They are up and down the eastern seaboard.”
Over 200 of them, in fact, and many with competitive sports programs.
My job as a dad is to help with options. ... I shotgunned the email and his game film to seven or eight schools. And five or six schools reached out to me.
So Jamie Googled the prep schools, digging through the internet as much as possible.
He was astounded at what he found.
“Many are coached by former NFL guys, and they’re allowed to have five post graduates (or PGs) to help their team compete,” Jamie said. “This postgraduate year does not count toward NCAA eligibility, so kids still have five years of college if they are redshirted a year.”
The more Jamie learned, the more he liked what he saw.
“My job as a dad is to help with options,” he said. “I wrote up an email, and I talked to one coach on the phone. I shotgunned the email and his game film to seven or eight schools. And five or six schools reached out to me.”
Caleb, meanwhile, was on board with a move that would prove to be a master’s class in patience. While all of his classmates would be moving on to college — some playing football — he would have to spend a year at a prep school, playing against more high school competition.
Very few kids on the West Coast attempt to make the move to a prep school; even fewer from the Northwest.
“I was the guinea pig,” Caleb said. “In January of my senior year, they (the prep schools) turned up the heat, wanting me to commit. I made a choice in March. One school even offered to fly me out.”
Getting accepted is not necessarily easy.
“The process is arguably tougher than trying to get into college,” said Caleb. “You need transcripts and tape of your highlights.”
“(These prep schools) will look at you if you have at least a 3.2 GPA,” he said.
“But,” he stressed, “you have to have the test scores.”
The school emphasizes strong SAT and ACT scores.
Caleb’s scores — and game film — were impressive enough that Lawrenceville head football coach Harry Flaherty wanted him to come there with a full grant.
A full grant, in Caleb’s case, was $65,000 for the school year.
He is as violent a player as we have had at Lawrenceville, and he truly loves football. A whole new crop of coaches were able to see that during his postgraduate year, and he created a slew of new opportunities for himself.
Lawrenceville head football coach Harry Flaherty
Sounds expensive. But in the world of Lawrenceville — and its enthusiastic alumni with deep pockets — it wasn’t much. The school has awarded $12.8 million in aid over the years.
And Caleb wanted to go to Lawrenceville.
“One of the reasons I chose that school was that this one was close to Alex,” he said.
Alex, who majored in business at Penn, has an internship working for a firm on Wall Street.
“As soon as I realized I would be taking another year before college, I moved back there (to be with Alex),” Caleb said. “Delaware had offered me after my senior year at Chiawana. They told me that after I finished at Lawrenceville, I still had the offer.”
Flaherty liked what he saw in Caleb.
“Caleb was an outstanding player at Chiawana High School who had several college offers, but felt a postgraduate year could open more doors for him,” Flaherty said in an email. “The chance to reclassify and take a fifth year gives student-athletes the opportunity to open themselves up to a wider range of colleges in different parts of the country and truly evaluate all of their options.
“This worked well for Caleb,” Flaherty continued. “He was able to retake his standardized tests multiple times in order to get his score up to an Ivy League level. He was able to attend summer camps once again, visiting some new schools while also revisiting schools while being another year older and more mature.”
The fifth year
The postgraduate situation is revolutionary for many lifetime West Coasters.
But for those on the East Coast, it’s nothing new.
Coaches like Flaherty and others in the Mid-Atlantic Prep League can use up to four post-graduate spots each year. In the New England area, PG spots on a team can be up to eight.
“Students choose to take a fifth year at a prep school for a variety of reasons,” said Flaherty. “Some feel that as players, injuries or lack of exposure have held them back in the recruiting process. Others feel they are young for their grade and need another year of maturity before entering college. Still others have goals of playing at Ivy League schools or high-academic Division I programs and need to boost their academic profiles by spending a year at an outstanding academic school.”
Lawrenceville offers that chance, Flaherty said.
“Often times young men are late bloomers, and the postgrad year gives them a chance to catch up and get on an even playing field,” he said. “We do a lot to help our guys with college recruiting, and coaches always like to hear about guys reclassifying to stand out more in the next year’s class. They might not be able to use a spot on you now, but in a year’s time they’d love to have you.”
A big impression
Niche.com ranks The Lawrenceville School as the No. 1 private school in the state of New Jersey.
The school sits on a 500-acre campus, and there are 818 students from 45 different countries and 33 states.
Famous alums include author Thorton Wilder; former Disney CEO Michael Eisner; George Gallup Jr., of the famous Gallup International Institute; Randolph Apperson Hearst of the Hearst Corporation; Brandon Tartikoff, former president of NBC Entertainment; musicians Dierks Bentley and Huey Lewis; Malcolm Forbes, former publisher of Forbes Magazine; and NBA player Joakim Noah.
It was the right move for Caleb.
“I’m 100 percent happy I did it,” he said.
Well, now he is. It wasn’t so when he first got to school.
“I wanted to leave at first,” Caleb said. “I was living alone on the East Coast. You have to go to class six days a week. They structure your day and want to know where you are at all times. I’m like, ‘What is this place?’ It took me a month to adjust. It was culture shock everywhere.
“But the nice thing is people accept you really quick.”
I wanted to leave at first. I was living alone on the East Coast. You have to go to class six days a week. They structure your day and want to know where you are at all times. I’m like, ‘What is this place?’ It took me a month to adjust. It was culture shock everywhere.
Once he got past the culture shock, everything was fine.
The school gives each student a chance to succeed. For Caleb, that meant working on his test scores.
That help also came in the weight room.
“The school has three full-time strength coaches there, and they’ll put together an individualized program for you,” Caleb said.
And it helped that he played well.
“I had a really good year at Lawrenceville,” he said. “I was the team’s Defensive MVP. I set the squat record at 485 pounds.”
Caleb had a good first game, and a better second game.
Then, in the third game, he had a hit that caught everyone’s fancy, including college coaches. He knocked a big offensive lineman on his butt, evoking a chorus of “ooohs” from the crowd.
The Lawrenceville boys lacrosse coach came up to him at lunch the following week and asked him to play defense for the school’s team this spring.
Caleb politely turned him down so he could concentrate on the weight room and getting ready for college football.
Flaherty says he’s ready.
“He fit in well with our team and had a truly dominant season,” the coach said, “making 97 tackles in nine games and earning first team all-prep honors.”
And then Flaherty said this: “He is as violent a player as we have had at Lawrenceville, and he truly loves football. A whole new crop of coaches were able to see that during his postgraduate year, and he created a slew of new opportunities for himself. We loved having Caleb here for a year, and for him, making that decision was life-changing.”
For Caleb, that meant he had 10 to 12 offers to sign with collegiate programs.
“Georgetown was my second option,” he admitted.
But when Cornell came calling, that was it.
“I like how big it is,” he said. “There are 20,000 students. And I want to go to law school, so pre-law is my focus at Cornell.”
Looking for more kids
Now that Jamie knows about the prep school route, he wants other athletes to know that there is another way to get to college and play sports.
“They worked with Caleb to raise his ACT test score, while Caleb played football against kids who will be at Alabama, Michigan and Oklahoma next year,” Jamie said.
That’s right. The Nick Sabans and Jim Harbaughs of the world are seeking these kids out.
Jamie says he knows the ins and outs of the system. He knows many of the prep school coaches now, which is why he thinks he can help kids from the Northwest who want to try this route.
“From the process of my two sons, many college and boarding school coaches asked me if kids in our region play ball anything like them, please send them their contact info,” said Jamie.
Caleb said there are athletes in the Tri-Cities who could are capable of doing what he did.
“The competition isn’t stupidly high that some guys from our area couldn’t play,” he said.
It worked out for Caleb.
Jamie also thinks there are more kids who could follow the same path.
“It was a gamble last year for us when Caleb had full-ride offers coming off his senior season at Chiawana,” Jamie said. “But his brother felt strongly to not take them based on what he saw of the value of a prep year at a boarding school. After three years of seeing kids come into an Ivy League environment, Alex said it seems to give those postgraduate kids a half step into what college life is like. It really made sense to Caleb as well, so we opted to take that gamble.
“And fortunately, it paid off immensely with Caleb now getting the same thing his brother is getting at UPenn: An opportunity for a zero-cost Ivy League education.”