WOODS CROSS — East High head football coach Brandon Matich sat on the edge of his chair with his head in his hands as sanctions were announced against the school and program for playing three ineligible players this season.
When the final punishment was announced — that he would not be allowed to coach the next two games of the season — he dropped his head, nearly into his lap, and wept.
After a lengthy, emotional hearing at Woods Cross High on Tuesday morning, the Region 6 Board of Managers voted 5-1 to impose a myriad of sanctions against the school and Matich, but they stopped short of forcing the team to vacate this season's wins.
For the coach, the relief was overwhelming, as the boys he loves will still be allowed to compete for a state title.
"We have not found him guilty of doing anything inappropriate," said John Haning, chairman of the group, which consists of the Region 6 schools. "We're trying to punish the school. The biggest thing is, besides the four players who played who are ineligible, there are 126 players who did it the right way, and they deserve a chance to play."
The sanctions, imposed because the team used three ineligible players this season, are as follows:
1. East will receive an official letter of reprimand, clearly stating that if there are any new cases of ineligible players participating in games — in any sport, for any reason — the games in which those players participated will be forfeited.
2. The school is on probation for one year.
3. The school will be fined $1,500, which is the maximum allowed by the rules.
4. The head football coach will be suspended for the next two games — that's a contest against Logan and the team's first playoff game.
5. No player in question will be allowed to play in future contests until they're deemed eligible by the UHSAA.
6. A required half-day training conducted by the UHSAA for all East High administrators and coaches. This has already been scheduled by principal Paul Sagers.
7. Dramatically change the current process of determining eligibility at East High. That process will include the principal checking, in conjunction with the head coaches, every student's eligibility paperwork and transcripts.
Matich and the undefeated team may have one more hurdle to clear, as the Utah High School Activities Association scheduled a 9:30 a.m. hearing for Wednesday on this matter, as well as Region 8's decision to vacate all of Timpview's region wins from last year and strip them of the 2011 region title. The five-member hearing panel, headed by UHSAA executive committee chairman Craig Hammer, will hear a report on both decisions and they have the authority to reduce penalties, increase penalties or affirm the decisions by each region.
In Tuesday's hearing, Bountiful High's principal was the only dissenting vote. Haning said the group tried to impose a penalty, solve the problem, and also balance the fact that dozens of students did nothing wrong and would be adversely affected by decisions that were outside of their control.
"I would have resigned my position if it would have allowed those kids to play," said Sagers. "We would have done anything."
When asked why Matich was punished, both Sagers and Haning said that was part of imposing a sanction against the school.
Haning said he hoped the sanctions and the discussion would encourage all principals to "take a better look at their process."
"We tried to find a balance," Haning said, "between finding a stiff pen and still be fair to kids It was not his players' fault." The hearing, which lasted more than three hours, included gut-wrenching profiles of each student-athlete in question.
Matich and Sagers were emotional as they discussed the specific circumstances of each player. In every case, the players were told by the school's athletic director that they were OK to play. Only one player was a varsity starter, while two were junior varsity athletes, who played limited minutes in multiple varsity games.
After the hearing ended, principals from Bountiful, Highland and Woods Cross flipped a coin for seeding. The Region 6 seeding for the playoffs is as follows: 1. East; 2. Woods Cross; 3. Bountiful; 4. Highland.
Matich made a passionate and emotional plea on behalf of the players in question, as well as the other 120-plus players in the program.
Tennessee Su'e Su'e, junior right tackle, was ineligible because he played in three games as a freshman at West High. He stopped playing because he has a serious heart condition that forces him to wear a pacemaker. The device activiated during that third game and his parents, along with his cardiologists, decided he shouldn't continue playing football.
He loved football so much that his grades suffered when he was told he could no longer play. His parents then moved him to a charter school, the Salt Lake Academy of Arts and Science, to get him individualized help. He became a dedicated and successful student.
His father is an assistant coach at East, and after discussing the possibility of playing football with his doctors, the cardiologist cleared him to play, but only under the supervision of his father. Because he'd been at the charter school for the last year and a half, athletic director Kathy Butler told the family that he did not need to file hardship paperwork.
Matich said his father checked with administrators twice because he wanted to make sure he'd done what he needed to so the junior could play.
"I was told Tennessee was OK and everything was in that needed to be in," said Matich. "I want to make this clear. Tennessee, though a starter, is somebody we could have been successful without. But I couldn't imagine wanting success without him being part of it. We have a lot of guys who could have played that spot and helped to make us successful. We thought we had a chance to be really good, even before we knew if he could play. But what a story this is. The odds this young man was able to overcome and earn that position and be a player on a great team He has persevered and found success despite the odds."
The second boy is a senior linebacker, but he was only a special teams substitute and junior varsity player. He was in Matich's health class and asked about the possibility of playing football for East. He told him he was going to try out for the Leopards' baseball team first. He did so and played baseball last spring. He moved to Utah and into East's boundaries nearly a year ago. He attended East for three semesters, and because he was cleared to play baseball, it was assumed he was cleared for football.
"Again, we were told he was OK to play," said Matich. "And again, not a young man we are trying to gain a competitive advantage with. Would we be as good without (him)? Absolutely. But this has been so good for (him). His dad just two weeks ago thanked me for allowing (him) to play and finally giving him something to believe in in his life."
The third student is the fourth-string varsity quarterback and part-time junior varsity quarterback. He is a sophomore who attended West until second quarter of his freshman year. He didn't play football at West, and in fact, had not played sports in high school at all.
He came from a very tumultuous family situation, and the family moved from West boundaries to East boundaries. He stayed at West until his parents found it to be unworkable to get him to school. He was able to ride the bus to East, and so they made the switch.
He and his parents were told that because he hadn't played sports at West, he didn't have to file transfer paperwork.
"These are my three boys in question," said Matich, choking back emotion in the silent room. "All are wonderful young men with unique backgrounds and stories These kids do not deserve to be punished. They have done everything the right way and done everything adults have asked of them."
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