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Defending 6A football champion Lone Peak forced to forfeit every game due to ineligible player

The rule regarding ineligible players doesn’t allow for discretion, ruled the panel unanimously

SHARE Defending 6A football champion Lone Peak forced to forfeit every game due to ineligible player

Pregame action between the Lone Peak Knights and the Timpview Thunderbirds at Lone Peak High School in Highland on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

MIDVALE — The defending 6A football champion Lone Peak football team will forfeit all of its games this season as penalty for playing an ineligible player, a hearing panel decided Wednesday.

The unanimous decision (5-0) delivered by a panel of principals who serve on the Utah High School Activities Association’s executive committee means the Knights are now 0-9 with one game to play this week against Pleasant Grove. The school, with the support of Alpine School District, plans to appeal the decision, although that hearing would have to happen before Saturday’s final RPI rankings are released, according to association attorney Mark Van Wagoner.

In years past, this kind of punishment would mean the school’s football team would miss the playoffs. But because the association switched to an RPI system that ranks teams and allows all teams to play in the postseason, the Knights, who were 5-4, will just fall from being ranked somewhere in the No. 7 to 12 range to the No. 21 to 25 range. It will likely mean a much tougher game on the road when they would have likely qualified for a bye and possibly a home game, depending on the final rankings, which will be released Saturday.

The association delivered the news through Van Wagoner, who said the rules were clear that if a team plays an ineligible player, for any reason, it forfeits the contest in which that player participated. The panel consisted of other principals, who sympathized with the situation but indicated the rules were clear and nonnegotiable.

“We’re all susceptible,” said panel chair and Brighton principal Tom Sherwood. “It’s messy, and it’s going to be a really difficult decision. I’ve sat in your chair, and we don’t think there was malintent, and no one thinks anything less of you or your staff, and especially the young man.”

Lone Peak principal Scott Sumner said that when a young man showed up at summer workouts, the school’s coach, who is only on campus to coach the football team and is not a teacher, told the young man he couldn’t participate until he “was eligible.”

The student filled out the required paperwork online in a system schools use called “Register My Athlete” — which is essentially a database that keeps track of student-athletes and their eligibility — and registered for school.

Sumner said the young man made a mistake when asked if he’d attended another high school, as he thought the question meant high schools in Utah and he was new to the state. Clicking no to that answer meant the file would show up as eligible when administrators or coaches checked it, even though his file should have been flagged as eligibility-pending because he would have been considered a transfer student.

When it came to Sumner’s attention through a random conversation about the student, the principal immediately called association officials, as well as the region’s other principals, and reported the problem.

After reviewing the situation, the region board of managers (made up of principals from the region) chose not to impose forfeiture as a punishment.

Crimson Cliffs principal Rusty Taylor asked region chairman Joel Perkins (who is Skyridge’s principal) why the region board of managers chose not to enforce the rule. 

Perkins said the discussion focused on how this could happen to any of them, and that it wasn’t intentional or an attempt to skirt the rules.

“There was zero discussion about RPI or the impact on the region,” Perkins said. “The conversation was entirely around … ‘This is something that could easily have happened at my school.’ ... This was more of a process problem than it was an ineligible player.”

Alpine District officials quickly decided to appeal the decision, which would need to happen by Saturday, according to Van Wagoner.

”Alpine School District is greatly disappointed to learn that UHSAA has overturned a unanimous Region IV decision to penalize the Lone Peak High School football team, regarding a clerical error that was discovered on ‘Register My Athlete,’” said Alpine District spokeswoman Kimberly Bird. “The error was caught last week by the school administration and immediately reported to the Region 4 chair. This type of overturning of a decision, by the UHSAA, over an honest mistake on one question for one student, should have a consequence that matches the error.”

Bird pointed out the punishment would extend to other teams in the region and state.

“Now there will be an imbalance in the state playoff positioning,” Bird said. “It is likely that the team Lone Peak will face in the first round will be just as frustrated as Lone Peak. It seems like the consequences far outweigh the clerical error, and an error that the school reported to the region, immediately. The Region 4 committee fully vetted the issue and made a unanimous decision of support. This is a region-level decision and is alarming to see the UHSAA step in and make such a broad overturn of a decision.”

If the decision stands, it could affect opponents like American Fork, East, Syracuse or Weber in the first round.

The rule was changed several years ago after both East and Timpview faced hearings imposing penalties on them for playing ineligible players. If East had been forced to forfeit every game in which the player participated, the school wouldn’t have made the playoffs. But an appeal to the Board of Trustees hearing panel determined the rule allowed them some discretion, and so the board penalized East by giving the school the last seed in the region.

After that incident, the executive committee changed the rule saying it should be the same for every infraction, without exception. Just this year, several schools have been forced to forfeit games as punishment for playing ineligible players, including the Desert Hills girls soccer team, which was forced to forfeit three games. 

Like this situation, the technical forfeitures impact seeding for the playoffs, but unlike years past, no team will be barred, even if the school has no wins on its record.