IHSA bounces Homewood-Flossmoor girls basketball team from playoffs
By Joe Biesk firstname.lastname@example.org February 19, 2014 5:13PM
Homewood-Flossmoor girls basketball coach Tony Smith. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 20, 2014 2:13AM
The Homewood-Flossmoor High School girls basketball team and its acclaimed first-year coach Anthony Smith were top contenders for the state title this season.
Now, they won’t even play a game in the tournament.
In a stunning decision Wednesday, issued about an hour before H-F was to play its opening game in the tourney, the Illinois High School Association dashed all hopes of the team’s postseason glory. Citing several violations of its bylaws, the IHSA banned H-F from competing and forfeited its 21 victories this season. The team, ranked second in Class 4A by The Associated Press, and which had lost only once, was scheduled to play T.F. North at 6 p.m. in Calumet City.
In a last-ditch attempt to avoid the severe penalty, attorneys representing the H-F players asked a Cook County judge for a temporary restraining order to block the IHSA’s decision but were denied. Attorney Timothy Liam Epstein, representing player Faith Suggs, said the players were disappointed by the IHSA ruling and the judge not granting the court order.
“There’s no wrongdoing on the part of my client or any other student-athletes,” Epstein said. “They’re basically suffering for the actions of someone else, and, as a result, there’s a lost opportunity for them to compete for the state championship and a lost opportunity for them to showcase their talents before college coaches for scholarship opportunities at the next level.”
The IHSA decision comes about a month after the parent of an unnamed current H-F player sued the school in Cook County Circuit Court, seeking Smith’s removal as head coach and a declaration that six transfer players be deemed ineligible. The lawsuit claimed that the six transfers participated in practices over the summer while they still were enrolled at other schools, that Smith violated the IHSA’s rules regarding recruiting or trying to recruit students and that the situation “undermines and destroys the close-knit community fabric” in H-F School District 233.
But the IHSA decision didn’t address those allegations. The IHSA statement says Wednesday’s decision stems from its inquiry, prompted by the lawsuit, and that the violations were found after H-F asked the IHSA to review its own internal investigation into the lawsuit’s claims.
In a Feb. 14 correspondence to the IHSA, H-F Principal Ryan Pitcock reported rules violations, including that the school improperly held conditioning programs “for a span likely greater than nine years” that were not open to all students. Pitcock wrote another letter to the IHSA on Wednesday, acknowledging that Smith had attended an AAU event, signed in as head coach and watched a game in which his players were playing, a violation of IHSA rules.
Smith also sent out a text at 8:58 p.m. June 2 that read, “Open Gym tomorrow at 4 pm-6 pm South Gym in the Box. Please be on Time. Time to get better!” The IHSA said that was a violation, and some of the players who received the text weren’t yet enrolled at H-F.
After meeting with IHSA officials in Bloomington on Wednesday, Smith and H-F athletic director Craig Buzea returned to the school about 5 p.m. and were walking together through a cafeteria toward the athletic office when approached by a reporter for comment. Buzea declined. A drawn-looking Smith shook his head when offered an opportunity to respond to the IHSA’s actions.
“Not adhering to these bylaws created a distinct advantage for the Homewood-Flossmoor girls’ basketball program,” IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said in a statement. “The school has admitted to violating IHSA bylaws 2.090 and 3.107. In fairness to the teams in the tournament who abided by IHSA rules, removing Homewood-Flossmoor from competition was the most equitable decision.”
In an email, H-F director of human resources and public relations Jodi Bryant described the ouster of the girls team from the tourney and the forfeits as an “unfortunate situation for our athletes, coaches and the H-F community. Even though there was no intent to violate the IHSA bylaws, the ... two violations occurred as a result of inadvertent decisions made by adults. It was our hope that our student-athletes would be spared consequences and that the IHSA would respond with sanctions against only the adults.
“It is with heavy hearts that we enforce these sanctions against our athletes ... but the integrity of Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School, the IHSA and the bylaws that govern our high school athletic programs must be held in the highest regard. We respect the decision of the IHSA and will continue to work together as we proceed through this process.”
According to records the IHSA released with its decision, Smith’s players participated in September in the U.S. Junior Nationals’ Battle of the Programs as IL-Dream Team 17, which included 11 current H-F players. College coaches from across the country attended, according to the tournament’s website.
The IHSA statement says H-F officials on Tuesday said they would suspend Smith and 11 varsity players but still allow the team to participate in the tournament.
But on Wednesday, the school asked to appear before the IHSA board of directors, which was holding a regularly scheduled meeting in Bloomington, and Hickman announced the suspension when they arrived, according to the IHSA statement. It said the school appealed, but the board sided with Hickman.
Four of the six transfers on the H-F team this season followed Smith to H-F from Bolingbrook High School: Amarah Coleman, Destiny Harris, Kristen Moore and Lexi Smith. The other two transfers were from Marist (Bria Stallworth) and Plainfield East (Suggs).
Documents the IHSA released late Wednesday show that three students were listed as having the same home address in Flossmoor. The IHSA had cleared the transfers before the season and declared the players eligible. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Hickman said the players’ former schools also signed off on the transfers.
At Bolingbrook, Smith’s teams won four state championships, in 2006 and three in a row from 2009 to ’11. The Raiders also finished second under Smith in 2007 and ’08. Before Smith became coach, Bolingbrook never had advanced beyond the regionals in the state tournament.
Smith, himself a Bolingbrook graduate, left the school at the end of last season to become coach at H-F.
Bernie Coderre, who plays for the H-F sophomore boys basketball team said he disagreed with the IHSA’s ruling. He said “the best players are going to play” on any talented squad.
“I know a bunch of city schools doing the same thing H-F did,” Coderre said. “For someone from H-F to file a lawsuit, I disagree with that. Once you’re on the team, you got to support your team.”
Brandon Levi, an H-F sophomore, said he regularly attended the girls basketball games. He said the team captured the attention of the student body, creating a “hype atmosphere,” and he was disappointed he couldn’t watch the team finish the season.
“They were unstoppable, to be honest,” Levi said. “There weren’t many teams that could beat them. It’s a bummer to see them stopped dead at the tracks, pack up and leave the season behind.”
Contributing: Tina Akouris,
Casey Toner and Tony Baranek.