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BRADENTON — Countryside hoped to change its postseason football fate Thursday, arguing that the recent forfeiture of six games was too harsh a punishment when there was no intentional skirting of state rules.
But the Florida High School Athletic Association Section 3 Appeals Committee, after much struggle to determine if Countryside knowingly allowed an ineligible player to compete for more than half the season, declined to restore the eligibility of senior quarterback Christian Strong or the wins.
Countryside athletic director Steve Blumer said the school would next appeal to the FHSAA Board of Directors, which doesn’t meet until Nov. 18 in Gainesville — after the playoffs have already started.
On Oct. 24, the FHSAA ruled that Strong, who moved to the area from Canada in January, was not an American citizen or living with family or legal guardians, as he had claimed. In turn, Countryside never filed the proper paperwork on him, and the school was forced to forfeit six games and fined $2,300, while the athletic program was placed on administrative probation for two years. The fine and probation were also upheld Thursday.
Blumer said he was to blame Thursday for not checking into Strong’s citizenship. He said that because Strong attended school in the United States for eight years before moving back to Canada, he assumed he was an American citizen.
“I made some mistakes,” he said. “…I cleared Christian Strong to play. The team should not be punished.”
Blumer said he was at fault for not thoroughly checking into Strong’s living situation. He said Strong lived with an aunt — that’s what Strong always called her — but she wasn’t an actual relative.
Strong said none of this was intentional, that he used power of attorney to set up legal guardianship, which is fine for establishing that a student is legally in the correct school zone but is not acknowledged by the FHSAA when establishing eligibility.
When the FHSAA had initially ruled Strong ineligible for spring football, because he transferred mid-semester, the organization told Countryside to check back in the 2012-13 school year to see if he would be eligible for the fall season. Countryside never did, and Blumer said he also dropped the ball on that because, again, he incorrectly assumed Strong was an American citizen.
But Denarvise Thornton, the FHSAA’s associate executive director for compliance and eligibility, said Countryside failed to file a GA4 form, which is required of any student-athlete who changes schools after ninth grade, until the FHSAA questioned Strong’s eligibility.
Those forms are supposed to be completed at the beginning of a school year before an athlete competes.
Countryside used House Bill No. 1403 to try and regain its forfeited games, which include two district wins and all but knocks the Cougars, who would have won Class 7A, District 9 and hosted a first-round playoff game, out of the postseason.
The new law states that “contests can’t be forfeited for inadvertent eligibility violations unless the coach or a school administrator should have known of the violation, nor can they be forfeited in excess of the number of games that coaches and adult representatives responsible for the violations are prospectively suspended.”
Thornton said Thursday that the law was intended to not unfairly punish students in the future, such as banning a team from the postseason years later.
The appeals committee struggled with the whether to reinstate Strong or rescind the forfeited games, especially since this is one of the first cases where the new law came into play.
Gibbs athletic director Javan Turner, who is on the appeals committee, filed a motion to not have Countryside forfeit games.
“The sticking point to me was falsification of residency, and the situation with whom (Strong) called aunt,” Turner said. “I don’t know if there was an intent to falsify there. But ultimately I agree with the board’s decision.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.