Season in seclusion, Part 2: Sanctions put the East High Leopards in crisis
The damage was done and what transpired in the coming weeks tested the character and fortitude of the entire program. “It was probably the worst time in my administrative career,” East principal Paul Sagers described.
Utah High School Activities Association bylaws state that ineligible participation nullifies the result of a contest by the offending school and any record achieved is vacated. East faced elimination.
The night preceding East's final regular-season game, Region 6's Board of Managers imposed seven separate sanctions, including suspending Matich, but didn’t vacate any wins. “To hear that we were not going to have to forfeit games, and I would have to sit out the next game was what was right,” Matich said. “Going back to school and saying you guys are fine; they’re all in the room together — my whole team. I had to get in front of them and tell them, ‘You get to play.’”
It was only the beginning. “A couple hours later we get a call from the media saying, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t over yet,’” Matich explained. The five members of the UHSAA executive committee overruled the decision, and the top-ranked 4A team was finished.
“You can’t feel more than one emotion at one time, but I sure shifted emotions a lot,” Matich said. “There are a lot worse things in life, obviously, but at the time it sure didn’t feel like it.
“The panel every time was from Duchesne, Grantsville and Morgan — people who don’t understand our transient population and how people come and go, how three schools in our district share that same charter school, (how) we have homeless shelters in our district," Matich said.
Athletic director Kathy Butler resigned the position she’d held for 23 years, while Sagers appealed the decision. A sub-panel of the UHSAA's Board of Trustees agreed to hear the appeal on the same day the Leopards’ perfection spoiled with a 51-34 loss at Logan in the regular-season finale. “It was like a morgue,” Matich said. “We didn’t belong on the field that night.”
“Behind the scenes I had some weak moments. Before I went up (to Logan) I went home. My dad was home with both of my grandmas watching my kids and Andrea was at the game,” Matich said. “I walked in and I was 12 again. I walked in, saw my dad, sat on the couch, put my head on his shoulder, and I sobbed. I sobbed like a kid who had his heart broken by his first girlfriend. I told my dad, 'I can’t fight anymore — I don’t have anything left.'
“He hugged me for a minute and slapped me on the back of my head and said, “That’s bull. You’ll always have fight in you. Now you go fight for those boys.’”
Twenty-four hours from the original hearing, the sub-panel gathered to hear East’s plea. “I said, 'I’ll do anything to let our kids play,'” Matich voiced. “I’m an adult. You can beat the (heck) out of me. These kids get one shot. We were steadfast and honest with how we approached this. We never lied about anything. It wasn’t like, ‘(Dang), they caught us.’ It was, ‘He’s what?’”
The Board suspended Matich for three games, stripped East of its region title and allowed the school to participate as the region's No. 4 seed. The contradictory ruling besmirched the program as a target of scorn.
“You can feel it a lot, especially when you go out and wear your East gear,” Tight end Joe Tukuafu said. “They give you dirty looks.”
One mistake and East’s perception was acrimoniously tarnished across the state. The Leopards were nothing but cheaters, recruiters and thugs. “I feel like if they took their own time and tried to listen to our story, they’ll make sense of it,” Linebacker Christian Folau said. “ ... This team has a very special perspective.”
Sagers grasped outside hostility, but he alluded, “You can look at it like those people made mistakes, too. If they were to go back in time they might have behaved differently.