Since 1993, Saddlebrook Preparatory School, also known as Saddlebrook Prep, has been a place where outstanding young (middle and high school-aged) golfers and tennis players from all over the world have come to receive top-notch training in their respective sports while also receiving a quality education that truly — as the school’s name indicates — prepares these young athletes for college, the possibility of a professional career and even for life after college if they’re not among those lucky enough to reach the pinnacle of their respective sports.
Rob Riehle, the grandson of Saddlebrook Resort founder and former owner Tom Dempsey, graduated from Saddlebrook Prep and is one of those former athletes (he started out as a tennis player but soon found he was better at golf) who appreciates both the training and the tremendous education he received at the school. He also was one of the few students at Saddlebrook Prep who didn’t need to have room and board at the school, since he lived in the community.
Riehle, who is now the director of marketing for the resort, graduated with a B.A. degree in Critical Media & Cultural Studies from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He says that Saddlebrook Prep was an important part of his life and now, he wants to expand the school’s reach beyond those who attend the school to receive concurrent enrollment in the prestigious Harry Hopman Tennis Program or Saddlebrook Golf Academy.
“When Mast Capital purchased Saddlebrook last year,” Riehle says, “there was some concern about what would happen to Saddlebrook Prep, as most of the other ownership groups who looked into buying the resort and adjacent property had no interest in the school. But, not only did Mast want to continue the school’s programs, it wanted to make an investment in its future; they definitely were interested in keeping the resort and school the way they were while also making them better.”
Included in the improvements Mast has planned, as we reported in a previous issue, is to move the driving range (which currently sits just inside the resort’s front gate on S.R. 54) to a portion of Saddlebrook’s two Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole championship golf courses, leaving Saddlebrook with 27 “outstanding golf holes,” according to Riehle, “instead of 36 mediocre ones.” He notes that although the courses themselves are still great, their irrigation and drainage systems will be replaced as part of Mast’s $25-million investment in resort renovations. “And,” he adds, “the new driving range will be two-sided — one for members and hotel guests and the other for golf academy students.”
A Private School For Wesley Chapel
The Mast group also recognized that, as a former Saddlebrook Prep student whose family had owned the resort since it first opened in 1981, Riehle was in a unique position in terms of being able to help grow the school’s student population, which has rarely exceeded 100 total middle and (mostly) high schoolers and currently is home to around 75 students. All of those are boarding students, including about 70% from other countries.
“One of the things we noticed,” Riehle says, “is that a lot of local residents are looking for a local private school option, whether because their public school is overcrowded, their kids can’t get enough one-on-one time with their teachers, they’re not happy with the curriculum, have safety concerns or for a combination of reasons. We believed, and Mast agreed, that these locals should at least take a look at Saddlebrook Prep.”
He adds that, “This is a beautiful, gated community with on-site security, so your kids can feel safe attending here.”
Although the Covid-19 pandemic affected pretty much everyone and everything, Riehle says that Saddlebrook Prep was hit particularly hard and has never fully recovered. “With our students always having been so international, and with many countries not allowing their residents to travel, much less to the U.S., the school really suffered,” he says. “It’s come back somewhat, but Covid definitely created room for more students to attend Saddlebrook Prep.”
Riehle also notes that although Saddlebrook Prep’s middle school has traditionally been mostly younger siblings of boarding high school students, “that is one area we think will grow with this new opportunity. In fact, although we think our ideal student population is 100-120 students as of right now, and that number could grow if there’s enough demand because we can always add more faculty and staff to accommodate that greater need.”
One of the things Riehle wants to stress is that this is the first time in Saddlebrook Prep’s three-decade history that being a golf or tennis player will not be a requirement to attend the school.
“We have been doing golf and tennis for 30 years and we’re very good at it,” he says. “But, let’s say your child is into gymnastics, or plays hockey. They can be done with school here by 1:30 in the afternoon and have plenty of time to pursue their own sports. Or, they can get extra schooling, or pursue hobbies or charities — whatever they’re doing to get ready for college, because preparing your child for whatever they decide to do after high school is what we’re all about. This school will give them the freedom to pursue their goals.”
Riehle also notes, however, that some people reading this story may not have known that there even was a golf and tennis academy right here in Wesley Chapel and that they may be interested in sending their kids to the school for those programs.
“How much better would it be for them to attend an actual golf or tennis academy, where they can practice and train every day with world-class instructors?,” he asks.
In fact, Saddlebrook Prep students also receive sport-specific exercise instruction for an hour every day with certified professionals.
He says that even though pros like Martina Hingis, Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick and so many others got such great training at the school, your child doesn’t have to make it to that level to benefit from attending Saddlebrook Prep.
“It isn’t cheap to send your kid here,” Riehle admits. “But, we see it as investing in your kid now so that maybe they get that scholarship and you don’t have to pay as much for college. Plus, a lot of jobs look for kids who played college sports because they build dedication, time-management skills and perseverance — all the skills that you learn by playing a sport.”
And, he adds that, “When I speak to college coaches, they tell me they’re happy to get kids from Saddlebrook Prep because they come to college already ready. That’s a big advantage.”
What To Expect
Students enrolling in the Academics-Only program at Saddlebrook Prep will take six classes each day between 7:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Advanced tutoring is available most days. Core classes meet college admissions and NCAA standards and Advanced Placement (AP) courses are available both on campus and online. There also are dual enrollment opportunities at Pasco Hernando State College, SAT prep courses, educational trips to locations of scientific and historical significance, school events throughout the year (including, for seniors, to Orlando’s Grad Bash), fitness courses designed, and with instruction by, certified pros and public service opportunities.
“The opportunity to learn with and from students from all across the globe is another advantage,” Riehle says. “It’s a great way for local kids to be exposed to different languages and cultures.”
Riehle also notes that Mast Capital’s investment in the school will allow for upgrades to Saddlebrook Prep’s technology, transportation, campus and programs.
Meet Deanna Garrett
Originally from nearby Dade City, Saddlebrook Prep Head of School Deanna Garrett earned her Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree in Educational Leadership from Saint Leo University. Prior to that, she earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in Early Childhood Education from USF. She has been a member of the school’s faculty since 2016 and the Head of School since 2018.
Prior to joining the staff at Saddlebrook Prep, Garrett worked in the Pasco County School District for 22 years in a variety of teaching, instructional support and administrative roles.
Her educational philosophy is that all students can learn, given a positive learning environment, strong and knowledgeable leadership, a committed and focused academic team, an encouraging community, and supportive family.
For more info about Saddlebrook Prep, call (813) 907-4300 or email Nona Wagh at firstname.lastname@example.org.