LARGO — The girl in the middle just wants to play basketball. Aliyah Farley is 13. She is 5 feet 5. She is the only girl on the Warriors, the junior varsity team at Westside Christian School.
Around her, Christian parents and coaches worried over boys and girls playing together. School athletic directors prayed and debated on Wednesday. They quoted Matthew. The concern was not that Aliyah could get hurt. It was that boys and girls playing together could lead to sin. They decided the dangers were too great.
It was a painful vote of 11 member schools in the Suncoast Christian Conference. The vote was 8-2, with one abstention, to disqualify Aliyah from playing with the boys.
Westside Christian immediately quit the conference.
The vote was pushed by conference president Rick Preslicka, athletic director at West Hernando Christian School. He has coached girls basketball. He has two daughters. One wanted to play basketball in her senior year at West Hernando. The school moved four girls from the JV squad to varsity so she would have a team to play on.
Preslicka canceled a meeting of the member schools Wednesday and took a telephone vote instead because of the media attention.
"It got turned around," he said. "I'm not against girls."
You have to understand how Christian schools are, he said, what they believe in. At his West Hernando school, boys and girls aren't allowed to hold hands.
Separation on the playing fields, he said, is just a given. "That's why it isn't even mentioned in our bylaws. We just have that understanding."
He said parents and school officials worry about the physical contact. Even innocently, it could lead to sin.
They picture kids scrambling under the net, hands flying.
"It opens doors."
Aliyah's mother watched her play in two games. Her team won both. The referee never had cause to blow the whistle for inappropriate touching.
"There wasn't a hint of sex," Rosaland Kenon said. "All their hands were up."
Westside administrator Vicky Jones said she had expected a negative vote. She had heard from some parents.
"It's sad," she said. "I just wanted Aliyah to be treated fairly."
Often, girls at Westside who want to play sports transfer to bigger schools. At Westside, not enough girls were interested in playing to make a basketball team. The school has only 112 students.
Aliyah remained at the school because its teachers and students are her extended family. Her mother drives an hour and half from New Tampa every day to get her there.
"She's being punished because she wants to stay," Jones said.
Coach Sean Ellington had invited Aliyah to join the team after noticing her speed and athleticism in gym class. Boys and girls take gym class together.
He doesn't understand the rationale of the vote. Gym classes are less structured than basketball games, but no one has objected to them.
At this point, Ellington said, it doesn't matter. Westside will not appeal and will not litigate. That would only harm the kids. He and athletic director Stacy Hill are already talking to coaches from schools outside the conference about forming a league of their own.
Aliyah was elated over that. "I was sad about the leaving the conference," she said Wednesday night, "but I'm happy because I can still play."
Coach Ellington is calling everyone together today to face the news as a team.
He knows what he wants to tell them.
"We're Warriors. We take the hits, and we keep on playing."