A five-member panel from the Utah High School Activities Association’s Board of Trustees unanimously ruled Friday that the No. 1-ranked 4A football team, the East Leopards, will be allowed to play in the postseason tournament.
The unanimous ruling overturned a decision by the UHSAA’s executive committee on Thursday that declared the team would have to forfeit seven wins in which it had played one or more ineligible players. The forfeits would have caused East to miss the playoffs.
Although East will play, other teams have been left out, and some rival 4A coaches are so unhappy with the decision that there has been at least informal discussions about forfeiting first-round games in protest.
The anger stems from another ineligible player case at Timpview, which had forfeits that were upheld by the board on Friday. The No. 2-ranked Thunderbirds were forced to forfeit every win in which they used an ineligible player, dropping them to third place in their region. East was assigned the fourth-place spot, without any specifics about which games they would be forced to forfeit.
The resulting firestorm could engulf the UHSAA when the football playoffs begin next week.
“The coaches are considering making a stand,” said Herriman coach Larry Wilson, whose team, as a No. 1 seed, could face East in the 4A first round if the Leopards win a Tuesday play-in game. “I think a lot of coaches are fed up. In a lot of ways, enough is enough.”
Wilson said he was discussing looking into his options with his principal and school district. He added that he and his staff had reached out to more than a dozen coaches who were disgruntled with the decision.
“We’re trying to see what processes are in place, and to go through that process,” Wilson said. “But with the coaches I’ve talked to, I think there’s overwhelming disbelief and disgust. It certainly has tarnished the whole excitement that goes along with the state playoffs.”
On Friday morning, it appeared that East’s battle to remain part of the postseason had about run its course.
By then, the school’s administration and coaches went through their third emotionally wrought hearing in four days. Four East players, all transfers, were found to be ineligible last week because they had failed to submit all the required paperwork.
East administrators told the board that the reason the players hadn’t submitted all their paperwork to the UHSAA was because the school’s athletic director had misunderstood a rule.
East football coach Brandon Matich and principal Paul Sagers pleaded with the board not to punish the players for the mistakes of an adult.
When the decision was finally rendered, both East and Timpview were hit with serious sanctions. Each received three years of probation and will undergo audits at the UHSAA’s discretion. Any further violations will result in disqualification for the rest of the season.
In addition, Matich was suspended for three playoff games, the school was fined $6,000 — $1,500 for each of the four ineligible players on its roster — and stripped of a region title.
But in East’s case, the panel decided to strip it of its preseason wins, but took away only three of the Leopards’ four region wins, allowing East to take the fourth spot.
Although the board did not specify which wins would be forfeited in region, the only possibility with East as a four-seed are forfeits to Woods Cross, Bountiful and Clearfield, with wins against Cyprus and Highland counting. With a loss to Logan, the Leopards dropped from 8-1 to 2-7.
The sanctions were an attempt to combine the penalty of forfeits with other sanctions — such as fines and coach suspensions — that Region 6 officials had suggested in a hearing on Tuesday.
“We have never had a precedent where a playoff team has missed the tournament as a result [of forfeits],” said UHSAA director Rob Cuff, who did not participate in the deliberations, but wrote the summary of sanctions on behalf of the panel. “This panel felt like assigning this last possible spot would allow the kids to continue to play. The three-game suspension was important because this was all about adults in a lot of ways, and I think that’s reflected in the sanctions.”
But the inclusion of East leaves out Cyprus — which stood to play Tuesday against Mountain View in a play-in contest for a first-round date against Herriman.
Cyprus Coach Scott Woolridge said his team was preparing for the game when the news broke. “I’m new in this state, it’s my first year coaching here, and all my kids are eligible because we filed our paperwork,” Woolridge said. “I supported coach Matich, but to me, the travesty in this lies in the process. The process the UHSAA put out is flawed. The people that were hurt were from East and Cyprus.”
But Cyprus is far from the only school affected. As it stands, Herriman could be facing the top-ranked team in the state despite earning a No. 1 seed themselves.
Timpview’s forfeits of region games against Mountain View and Maple Mountain means the Bruins break out of a three-way tie with Springville and Salem Hills for outright fifth place. The Red Devils and the Skyhawks had been preparing for a play-in game to determine who would get a shot. Timpview could play Logan, the defending state champion in the first round.
The resulting scramble has mixed up many coaches around the state, and left others not knowing what to say to their players who now will be at home this year.
“When we left the meeting, we would have understood if East was out, then we were out,” Springville coach Willy Child said. “Our kids see in the media that East is in, they think we’re in too, because Timpview’s forfeits must have been overturned. Then we have to tell them we’re not in. They didn’t understand it before, now they really don’t understand it.”
For East, it was a ray of sunlight for a school plagued by storms in the last week.
“Our kids get to play, that’s the most important thing,” a weeping Matich said after Sagers told him the panel’s ruling. “I can handle the other stuff. Our kids get to play.”
Players, who had gathered together at the East campus for a potluck, were quick to celebrate as well. The ruling released them from the dread of having played their last game.
With Friday’s ruling, they know they could be the subject of anger, and said they were prepared.
“We hope they understand where we’re coming from,” junior Korey Rush said. “If they don’t, we hope everybody gets the real story.”
But even those who had defended East were confused by the logic of the ruling the UHSAA handed down. John Haning, the principal at Woods Cross who had led the Region 6 panel, argued stringently on their behalf, calling for the association to “do what’s right for kids.”
But Haning’s original ruling had also been made with the intent to avoid affecting other teams from other regions. He said East’s No. 4 seed gave him mixed feelings.
“I wouldn’t want to be Herriman right now,” Haning said. “I guess that was what they thought the harshest punishment they could’ve given was without hurting the kids at East. But it doesn’t seem fair to everyone else in the state. I’m not sure how I feel about that.”