- - Monday, December 17, 2018

CATONSVILLE, Md. | R.J. Eytle-Rock was 16 and a promising young basketball and soccer star when he left his home, about an hour east of London, to attend Barking Abbey, a notable secondary school in the British capital.

“I moved into the team house with my teammates, which was about 15 minutes away (from the school). That made it easier for us to get to workouts and not travel home in the dark,” said Eytle-Rock, who played soccer at Reading Academy in England.

After two years at Barking Abbey, he came to the U.S. to play prep basketball last season at The Peddie School in New Jersey. He is now a key freshman guard for UMBC, which last March became the first No. 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to upset a No. 1 seed when it stunned Virginia.

Eytle-Rock is among the growing list of Barking Abbey graduates who have found their way to the Division I rosters of men and women’s programs in the United States. That includes UMBC sophomore Daniel Akin, who scored the first basket in the Virginia upset.

“The coaches there (at Barking Abbey) are very dedicated to improving the players as individuals,” Akin said.

While England is known for soccer, basketball is increasing in popularity in Great Britain. And Barking Abbey, with its strong academic program and a basketball academy that began in 2005, is leading the charge.

There are Barking Abbey graduates with other Division I men’s teams, including guard-forward Akwasi Yeboah (Stony Brook) and guard Caleb Fuller (UC-Davis). Yeboah was leading Stony Brook in scoring in mid-December.

Why is Barking Abbey successful?

“I think there is a collection of factors that have really helped us in placing our alumni to schools in the USA,” Barking Abbey coach Lloyd Gardner wrote in an email to The Times. “First of all, we have a fantastic model here at the school, similar to that of a high school in the USA, where the students are able to combine their academic and athletic aspirations all at the same place.

“The school is able to provide an environment where the students access high-quality coaching and get a competitive on-court experience against some of the other best players in the country. We have also had students over the past 12 years that have gone to the USA and had success,” he added.

UMBC coach Ryan Odom, who had made earlier recruiting trips to London, went to England in spring 2017 to see Akin.

“Coach Odom was visiting Dan at Barking Abbey and I happened to play very well and we stayed in contact,” Eytle-Rock said.

The trip across the pond paid off right away for the Retrievers.

Akin was named to the 2017-18 America East All-Rookie Team as a freshman at UMBC. But the 6-foot-9 forward was injured this past summer while playing in the U-20 European Championships in Germany and has not played yet for UMBC this season.

Eytle-Rock has played for Great Britain in several FIBA European events, and he averaged 8.7 points during England’s third-place finish at the U-20 European Championships in 2017. He was ranked No. 1 in the first DENG TOP 50 camp in London, hosted by NBA veteran and London-raised Luol Deng of Duke.

“(Eytle-Rock) was one of the better players in England, along with Dan,” Odom said. “He is very unselfish on offense.”

With about 2,000 students, Barking Abbey was founded in 1922 as one of the first co-education grammar schools in the country, according to its website. The village of Barking Abbey was home to a monastery that dates to the 7th century.

Collegiate women’s players from the school include sophomore Imani Whittington (Columbia), sophomore Savannah Wilkinson (Florida State), sophomore Abigail Johnson (St. Bonaventure), senior Shanice Norton (LSU) and redshirt freshman Chloe Gaynor (Long Beach State).

Jamila Thompson, another Barking Abbey product, played at Drexel in Philadelphia and is now with a pro women’s team in Spain.

Whittington said she and her fellow Brits have to adapt to a new style of play in the U.S.

“It’s more physical here,” said Whittington, who grew up in East London. “In Europe, it’s more technical.”

Eytle-Rock said adjusting to suburban Baltimore is a bigger challenge off the court.

“It is just different; it is not London,” he said. “My coaches and teammates make me feel comfortable. There are some things that will always be different, but I like it here.”

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