Leader Blues

Saturday, November 14, 2009

SPORTS >> Forfeit fight forces halt to playoffs at 3A level

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

Class 3A football fans will have to put away the war paint and cowbells for a while, possibly the season.

The Arkansas Activities Association announced late Thursday evening the 3A state playoffs, scheduled to begin Friday, were suspended indefinitely after Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Gordon McCain granted an injunction to the Lamar athletic department on an appeal filed earlier in the week.

Lamar requested an independent hearing regarding the Arkansas Activities Association’s decision on Tuesday that forced the Warriors to forfeit five of their six victories in the 4-3A Conference and their subsequent No. 2 seed in the playoffs because of an ineligible player.

Harding Academy, which had a first-round bye, was not scheduled for a playoff game until next week.

The situation involves Blaid Estes, a junior defensive player who transferred from Russellville to Lamar and moved in with his grandparents at the beginning of the school year because of threats he allegedly received at Russellville last year.

The AAA determined the player did not meet criteria for a legitimate move-in under Article III, Rule 1, Section A of the Arkansas Activities Association handbook which reads:

“A student’s eligibility for interscholastic athletics shall be in the public school district of the parent’s residence. Refer to other residence and transfer rules for limitations and situations. The AAA recognizes only one residence for eligibility. A change in residence consists of a complete and bona fide move from one domicile to another.”

AAA executive director Lance Taylor made the initial decision Nov. 6, and the Arkansas Activities Board of Directors sub-committee reinforced that decision during the appeal process Tuesday.

The injunction ordered the AAA to overturn its previous decision and award the victories back to Lamar, and place the Warriors back in the 3A playoffs.

McCain was prohibited from commenting to The Leader on specifics of the case, but did provide a copy of the ruling, which stated:

“The Court finds and concludes that, based upon the evidence presented, Plaintiffs have met their burden of demonstrating a likelihood of success on the merits of the claim for permanent injunction, and that irreparable harm would occur unless preliminary relief was granted. Any harm occasioned to the Defendants is outweighed by the irreparable harm the Plaintiffs would suffer.”

The ruling went on to say that the AAA failed to properly apply its own rules, and that the testimony of Estes’ mother established “extreme and unusual circumstance,” which should have met the grounds of a hardship application.

Taylor strongly disagreed with the decision handed down.

“We spent over three and a half hours just arguing our stance,” Taylor said. “That’s a rule that has been in place for over 50 years, and has not been changed by the schools. That’s the only way that rule can be changed, is a vote by the schools, and the middle schools, junior high schools and high schools have abided by that rule and never changed it in over 50 years.

“But they said that did not matter; that we were to overlook their ineligible player.”

Taylor also said that if the appeals court did not decide to expedite the case as an emergency hearing, a higher court ruling could take up to six months. Until something is resolved, the AAA’s hands were tied as far as resuming the playoffs.

“We’re waiting on a written order from the court at this point,” Taylor said Friday afternoon. “He told us it would be here first thing this morning, and we still have not received it. We have to wait for that to see what our next move will be. It’s basically a mess.”

Lamar officials argued Estes met the criteria for a legitimate move as it was in good faith and without fraud.

Lamar finished 9-1, 6-1 in the 4-3A Conference. The Warriors’ only loss was to eventual 4-3A champion Perryville 27-7 in Week 8. The AAA ruling reversed conference victories over Mountain View, Yellville-Summit, Marshall, Green Forest and Atkins.

Lamar would have faced 7-3A No. 4 seed Parkers Chapel in the first round, but its spot was given to Paris, and also moved both Yellville-Summit and Green Forest one seed higher in the bracket. The decision also handed a playoff berth to Atkins, which did not originally qualify for postseason play.

Harding Academy, based in Searcy, finished the regular season as unbeaten champion of the 2-3A Conference, and earned its first-round bye as the league’s top seed. But with the playoffs suspended, the Wildcats will get at least one more free week.

“I don’t know where this puts us,” Wildcats coach Roddy Mote said Friday morning. “I mean, I’ve heard all kinds of stuff, but the only thing I’ve been told for sure is that there are no games tonight.”

The Wildcats stormed through the regular season with minimal challenge from any of their opponents, which has made them one of the favorites to reach the 3A state finals originally scheduled for noon on Dec. 12 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

“All we can do is keep structure in our program and continue to do the things necessary for us,” Mote said. “We can’t be overly concerned about any of it — it’s pretty much a wait-and-see approach for us at this point.”

Having at least one extra week off was also not much of a concern for Mote as of Friday.

“All of the teams will be in a similar situation,” Mote said. “We don’t need to worry about things that are out of our control, although sometimes it’s hard not to.”