After discovering ineligible players, Leopards will see 8-1 season end if final appeal falls short.
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East football players gathered at their school early Thursday afternoon, sitting quietly in the hallways and on the staircases of the building, talking in hushed tones.
They had been watching film that morning when they heard the decision that had taken almost a full day to reach them: The executive committee of the Utah High School Activities Association decided to wipe out all but one win of their 8-1 season after learning of ineligible players who had played for the team.
The team had waited to see if maybe the five-member panel that had heard its case would uphold the Region 6 penalties: serious sanctions, but no forfeits. The Leopards had suffered a 51-34 defeat to Logan, all the while wondering if they were losing their final game this year.
The No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A, a team some believe is the best in Utah, will be excluded from the playoffs unless East can appeal successfully the decision to the UHSAA's Board of Trustees.
"It definitely hurts a lot," said Zach Swenson, a senior captain of the team. "I can't really say much more about it."
The UHSAA panel came down hard on a program that had four players who inappropriately had been declared eligible, a situation characterized in the written decision as "a severe lack of institutional control."
East has defended itself at the region and state level by saying the ineligible players saw the field only because of confusion about rules that were changed this spring. A region hearing determined that forfeits wouldn't be necessary in lieu of other sanctions, including a $1,500 fine, probation and two-game suspension for coach Brandon Matich. The UHSAA panel ended up overriding the region's penalties.
East athletic director Kathy Butler testified before the UHSAA panel Wednesday that she had fallen into a "gray area" when she told the four players and Matich they were eligible when they weren't.
She had approved two players from charter schools since it had been more than a year since they had attended their original schools from Highland and West, respectively. A transfer from Oklahoma had played baseball at East this spring, so East approved him, not knowing that he needed to file paperwork to the UHSAA under rules new to this year.
The last student had moved in with his father in East boundaries after a custody battle and did not file a hardship waiver.
At the end of her statement, Butler announced she would resign, ending a career of more than 23 years as athletic director at East.
While East and the Region 6 principals had characterized the errors at the school as clerical mistakes made by an adult, the UHSAA framed it as "a wholesale failure" to determine the athletes' eligibility. The majority of the panel decided that forfeitures, although harsh, had been the standard set forth by the state as punishment for ineligible players.
The sentence was tough to swallow for East, which knew the panel had a "tentative decision" Wednesday afternoon but didn't hear until Thursday morning after the UHSAA had issued a written decision.
"The only thing I have to compare it to is death of a family member," Matich said. "This has turned into a policy thing and not a people thing, and we're not doing right by what's right for kids. Not everything in life is black and white, especially when you're dealing with kids."
East wasn't the only one punished with sanctions for ineligible players Thursday. The UHSAA upheld a Region 8 decision to force Timpview to vacate its wins and region title from last year after an ineligible player was discovered retroactively. The Thunderbirds also will have to forfeit two preseason wins and a region win over Mountain View which goes against the region's ruling that skews the playoff picture not for Timpview, but for other teams in the region.
Salem Hills and Springville appealed the forfeits not in Timpview's interest, but in their own after the schools learned Mountain View's extra win would catapult the Bruins out of a three-way tie for fifth and into a play-in game. The Skyhawks and Red Devils will be left out, and Timpview still is the No. 1 seed.
"I don't think it's right that another team's mistake is going to cost our team their right to play," Springville coach Willy Child said. "In East's region, the only team that suffered was East. Timpview hasn't been punished, but it messes with us and Salem Hills."
Both schools have hearings scheduled for Friday morning in a last attempt to change their fates. Timpview will present at 9:30 a.m. for a panel of UHSAA Board of Trustees members, and East will argue its case after.
East principal Paul Sagers said he would keep working to get his students in the playoffs.
"I feel like I'm in the last round of a heavyweight fight," Sagers said. "People have asked me if I think we have a chance. Of course I do, or else I wouldn't be going. I'm down, but there's one last round."
Not just the schools directly affected were troubled by the UHSAA rulings. Woods Cross principal John Haning, the Region 6 chairman, said he was disappointed that his region had been overruled with penalties he disagreed with.
"I think the sanctions that we put out there are going to make a school more diligent about what it's going to do," Haning said. "We penalized them in every way you can without taking away opportunities for innocent kids. With forfeits, we're basically saying to them, 'Your administrator made a mistake, so tough luck.' "
In its decision, the UHSAA said it was charged to protect the interest of other schools and fair competition. Child, like many others, said he was sympathetic to East's plight, but more so for his players.
"I feel bad for East: They paid the ultimate price and I can only imagine what it would feel like," he said. "But I feel worse for our kids. We had nothing to do with what happened to us."
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Why East must forfeit games
East played at least one ineligible player in every game this season up until the Highland game. Seven of its wins this season were wiped out.
Who is authorizing the forfeits • The Utah High School Activities Association, through a five-member panel of its executive committee members. The panel signed off a written ruling that overrode Region 6 sanctions that included a fine, probation and a coaching suspension but no forfeits.
Why the players were ineligible • The players all were transfers into the school who had not filed the appropriate paperwork for eligibility to the UHSAA. East has said the athletic director had applied the previous year's rules and thought they didn't need to file.
Why Timpview is forfeiting only three games this year • Timpview's ineligible player was used in only three games two preseason contests and one region contest. Last season, Timpview used an ineligible player throughout the year, which is why it must vacate wins and a region title from 2011.
Further recourse for Timpview and East • The schools both will have an appeal hearing Friday morning, Timpview at 9:30 a.m. and East at 10 a.m. The UHSAA will convene a panel out of members of its board of trustees. This is the last possible appeal within the framework of the UHSAA. Legal action could follow, but neither school has yet said that will happen.
East's ineligible players
The top-ranked East Leopards had a total of four players who did not file appropriate paperwork to the UHSAA. The school has said that each was declared eligible by the athletic director.
Tennessee Suesue, the lone starter • He played football at West as a freshman but stopped due to a heart defect. He attended Salt Lake City Center for Science Education for a year and a half before transferring to East. He required a waiver since he wasn't returning to his home school.
• The first player discovered, who was at Highland as a freshman, transferred to Horizonte, then before his junior year, he transferred to East. A junior varsity and back-up player, he required a waiver because he wasn't returning to his home school.
• A sophomore player who moved from his mother's home in West boundaries to his father's home in East boundaries. He required a waiver because it was not a full family move.
• A special teams and junior varsity player who came from out-of-state to live with his father in East's boundaries. He required a waiver because it was not a full family move. He had played baseball at East in the spring under the previous year's guidelines, adding to confusion at the school.