SALT LAKE CITY — The top-ranked 4A football team in the state will have to answer more questions about whether ineligible players were allowed to compete for the East Leopards during a second hearing on the matter this Tuesday.
A hearing was held last week, and it was determined that the school allowed an ineligible player to compete in two games, albeit sparingly. The principals of the region voted 5-1 to require East High to pay $200, receive a letter of reprimand, give up a pre-season game next fall and suspend the head coach Brandon Matich for last Friday's game against Highland.
East principal Paul Sagers said neither he nor his head coach had any idea there were issues with that student — or the three new cases that they'll discuss in Tuesday's hearing — until Kevin Dustin, who oversees football for the Utah High School Activities Association, called and told him another principal had reported that East may have some eligibility issues.
Sagers said he received a list of several players and was asked to investigate, which he did immediately. While most of the students on the list were eligible, four students had issues that may deem them ineligible, but only one has been so deemed at this point.
Sagers and Matich said that just to be safe, they held all of the student-athletes in question out of Friday's game.
The principal said he was shocked and devastated to learn of the issues, and was adamant that his coaching staff was unaware of the potential problems.
"Because of some clerical mistakes … which were made by adults not affiliated with the football program, we had some kids who may have been playing with eligibility issues," said Sagers. "The questions had nothing to do with recruiting, nothing to do with academics and nothing to do with giving East a competitive advantage."
He said school officials worked with the families in question to investigate the allegations, and they're prepared to discuss the specifics in Tuesday's hearing.
"I want to respect the process and present the facts in the hearing to the appropriate people," said Sagers. Rule changes may have led to the confusion of administrators who "were advising families using old guidelines," Sagers said. "I was so determined that we deal with these issues correctly, I made arrangements with the UHSAA to do a half-day training for my administrators, athletic director and coaches."
Asked why his team shouldn't have to forfeit every game in which an ineligible athlete played — just as Snow Canyon baseball and Timpview football recently had to do — Sagers said the rules give principals and the UHSAA leeway to deal with extenuating circumstances.
"In my experience, as a principal for the last 10 years, we have, to my knowledge, because of honest mistakes … never gone to the extreme of what the UHSAA procedures allow. The rules say a team 'may' forfeit. … But we haven't wanted to punish innocent kids and coaches for mistakes that other adults made."
When presented with the Timpview and Snow Canyon examples, Sagers said that East isn't asking for special treatment, only that his peers consider the individual circumstances of the student-athletes and the intention of East administrators. In both of those cases the principals of the region voted to make the teams forfeit the games. The UHSAA's executive committee affirmed the Snow Canyon decision. The Timpview case was not appealed.
"I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for this," said Sagers. "These kids have worked for nearly a year to enjoy the success they've had this season."
Matich wouldn't speculate on what discipline the principals might impose, but said he hoped they considered whether the punishment was directed at the right people.
Even the students in question, they said, didn't know they were breaking any rules.
"I just hope we remember why we got into this business, and it's the business of doing the right things for kids," Matich said. "I trusted the process. I submitted my eligibility list; my roster has been public for months." Added Sagers, "(Matich) was told that every student he gave a uniform to was eligible."
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