MIDVALE — The top-ranked East High football team will be allowed to keep just enough wins to make the 4A playoffs, while second-ranked Timpview will forfeit four games in which an ineligible student athlete played.
The seemingly contradictory decisions were an attempt by a sub-panel of the Utah High School Activities Association's Board of Trustees to show mercy to the East High football players while trying to punish the administrations of both schools for a failure to ensure the players representing the school were eligible to compete.
"The panel wanted to treat East as Snow Canyon (baseball) was treated," said UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner, who will issue a written decision on both cases in the next few days. "They get a severe penalty, but they still have a chance to play (in the playoffs). It was the timing of the discovery of the violation. The association is enormously unhappy with East High School for putting us in this spot, and also for the Salt Lake School District for taking sides."
Van Wagoner said the panel felt for the 120 innocent student athletes who would miss the playoffs because of the failure of East's administration to properly establish eligibility.
"We were the ones who were asked to watch out for the kids when East High School failed to do so," said Van Wagoner. "The panel tried to ameliorate the harm that East High School had done to their players. They failed to protect their own students … This is not a clerical error. This is complete, wholesale mismanagement."
East head coach Brandon Matich was overcome by emotion when the list of penalties was handed to him, but this time his tears were in relief and gratitude.
"I think it's fair because my boys get to play," said Matich, who was suspended for three games. "The most important thing is the kids get to play. And that's why we're in this business. We're in it for the success of kids, and that's what I wanted all along."
The penalties to East changed for the third time in four days after the panel made up of members of the Board of Trustees tried to allow East a playoff spot while punishing both schools for playing ineligible players. The Timpview case was complicated when principal Todd McKee informed the panel that they'd found another game in which an ineligible player was used during Region 8 play.
The panel voted not only to force Timpview to forfeit all four of the games in which that player competed, but they also imposed many of the more harsh sanctions that they imposed on East.
The penalties against East include putting them in the playoffs as the number four seed; suspending Matich for three games; assessing the school with a $6,000 fine; taking the region title and putting them on three years probation. Also none of the ineligible players will be allowed to play for the remainder of this season.
The penalties against Timpview include forfeiting all games in which an ineligible player participated, including region games against Maple Mountain and Mountain View; assess the school a $1,500 fine; and three years probation.
There are a number of unanswered questions including what is East's record? Which specific games will East forfeit? And why was Timpview asked to forfeit all games in which an ineligible player participated
Van Wagoner confirmed that the majority of wins in which ineligible players were used will be forfeited or vacated. Which games those are, however, is still being decided.
The decision had wide-ranging implications for the playoffs, which begin on Tuesday with a play-in game at Mountain View against East. If East wins, they could face the top-seeded Region 7 team, Herriman. Timpview is likely Region 8's third seed, which means they travel to Logan to take on the defending state champs.
The head coach of the reigning 4A state champion team was baffled by the decision and questioned how two standards could be applied in like cases.
"This is not about East, Timpview or Logan," said Logan head coach Mike Favero. "This is about the future and integrity of high school sports … I believe every school should follow the same rules, and I believe there has to be some integrity in the tournament, and to have that there has to be transparency, consistency and accountability."
He wasn't the only coach struggling with why Region 6 was treated differently than Region 8. Because Timpview was forced to forfeit all of the games in which their ineligible player participated, two teams were eliminated from a play-in game that was scheduled for Saturday. A three-way tie between Mountain View, Salem Hills and Springville was broken by Timpview's forfeit to Mountain View so the Bruins get that fifth and final spot in the playoffs.
The Bruins will host the Leopards in a play-in game on Tuesday.
Springville head coach Willy Child said they were prepared to be eliminated from the tournament because of Timpview's punishment, but they weren't prepared to be treated differently.
"I feel bad for our kids," he said. "I feel bad for Salem's kids…I felt bad for East's kids, but now they get to play … We left that meeting understanding there was a chance that we wouldn't get to play because of the forfeits. If that happened, we'd have been upset, but we'd probably have understood it. Now we don't even understand it."
Van Wagoner said the panel members worked for more than an hour trying to find a way to allow all three of those tied for fifth place to enter the tournament, but they could not find a way.
Cyprus coach Scott Wooldridge was just heading out to practice with his team when he was informed by the athletic director that the Pirates would not be playing on Tuesday.
"I'm new to this," said Wooldridge, who came to Utah after coaching in Idaho. "But I've never seen anything like it. I think the process is very much flawed. It's affected my team. I don't understand how they don't forfeit to us, but they forfeit to everybody else."
All of the coaches feel for the East players and the situation they were in once the ineligibility issues came to light. But many of the coaches and administrators at affected schools wondered why their students didn't elicit as much sympathy.
Van Wagoner will issue a written decision, likely this weekend. He said it wasn't sentiment that swayed the panel, but the argument that more than 100 innocent young men would pay for the mistake of a few adults.
It was Matich who made that case most passionately in the two-hour hearing.
"This process has brought me to my knees," said an emotional Matich. "I still get to coach a lot of football games, but for these boys, they don't get this moment back. I'm begging you. Please see this for what it is — an innocent error for which these boys shouldn't be punished. This wasn't done maliciously or with blatant disregard for the rules."
When asked if the rulings were fair, Cuff said that is difficult to determine because each case is so different.
"I think deliberation is an important thing," said Cuff. "These board members take a lot of time in trying to evaluate the information they have … We've never had a precedent where the team has missed the playoff spot as a result. The three game suspension of the head coach is important; this is all about adults, in a lot of ways."