Woods Cross • East football coach Brandon Matich won’t be on the sidelines this Wednesday against Logan or for the first playoff game against Westlake.
The No. 1-ranked Leopards have one consolation: At least there are playoffs in their future.
The program got to keep its undefeated season after reporting three ineligible players to the Region 6 principals Tuesday, but it got a number of other sanctions for the violations. The most visible punishment will be Matich’s absence from the next two games, but the penalties also include a $1,500 fine and a one-year probation for the school that will force it to forfeit any future games played with an ineligible athlete, no matter the circumstances.
The sanctions, by a 5-1 vote with Bountiful the lone vote against, will go hand in hand with a new process for determining eligibility, which will involve principal Paul Sagers and Matich.
The Utah High School Activities Association will conduct a training seminar to teach all coaches at East its policies.
Matich said he’d take the suspension, which was tacked onto the game he sat out against Highland last week, on the chin along with the other sanctions.
"You never want to be away from your kids — I think that hurts your kids as well," Matich said. "But if it’s gonna help my kids and allow them to play, I’m going to accept responsibility. It’s been really emotional for me, and I’m happy for right now that they can play."
All of the penalties could have been avoided if the school had submitted paperwork at the beginning of the season for the three players, as well as another who was discovered early last week. Of the group, only one, junior right tackle Tennessee Suesue, is a varsity starter.
The Region 6 board of managers determined that a lack of understanding of the rules by the administration — not any underhanded recruiting or competitive-advantage tactics — was the reason East had overlooked the eligibility requirements.
All the cases were presented as thorny issues in emotional testimony by Sagers and Matich, who choked up and wept as they struggled through prepared statements.
Suesue was born with a serious heart defect and hadn’t played football since an episode during his freshman year at West. Suesue wasn’t expecting to play football until cleared by a doctor this spring. He subsequently enrolled in East, where administrators thought he was eligible because he had attended a science-based charter school. Once he left the charter school, he was eligible in the boundaries where he lived, which was West, so his eligibility remained at West.
The other students, who played on the JV team, also had unusual cases: One boy had moved from Oklahoma to live with his father and had even played baseball in the spring.
"I don’t think it’s just East, I think it becomes more complicated as there’s more options out there for kids," Woods Cross principal John Haning said. "There’s charter schools, online charter schools. … There’s a million things that can affect [eligibility] now. It’s way bigger than it ever was."
The wrinkle in the penalties was Matich’s suspension, which seemed to be at odds with some of the discussion before the principals talked about sanctions in a closed executive session. Highland principal Paul Schulte, who originally alerted the UHSAA to the possibly of ineligible players, was one of Matich’s more vocal defenders.
"I don’t know what Brandon can do in that situation," Schulte said.
Sagers explained after the penalty had been handed down that the principals had come to an understanding that it was the best way to punish the school instead of the players.
"On one level, I feel like we went through the process, and I feel really good about that," Sagers said. "I feel horrible for Brandon, but I think for his kids, he would’ve done anything."
East is 8-0 this season, beating opponents by an average of 37 points per game. After presenting a case of one ineligible player and receiving sanctions Oct. 10, the program received word from the UHSAA the next day that as many as 12 more players could have eligibility issues. Nine later were found out to be fine, but Matich benched all of them for the game against Highland.
A subset of the UHSAA’s executive committee will meet Wednesday in a special session where Haning will report the region’s sactions. The executive committee can uphold the region’s decision or alter it at that time, according to Kevin Dustin from the UHSAA.
After the hearing, Region 6 did a coin flip to break a three-way tie for second place. Woods Cross won, earning a No. 2 seed, while Bountiful took the No. 3 seed, given its head-to-head victory against Highland. The Rams will be forced into a play-in game against the No. 5 finisher in Region 8.
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