For the second time in five months, a Tampa Bay football powerhouse will have to forfeit victories.
The Florida High School Athletic Association said Wednesday that Countryside must forfeit the six games that quarterback Christian Strong played in this season, likely ending the Cougars' postseason aspirations.
Strong, a senior who moved from Canada in January, was ruled ineligible late last week after an FHSAA investigation found that he was not an American citizen or living with relatives or legal guardians. The FHSAA also said he did not make a full and complete move into Countryside's geographic zone. And in turn, Countryside had not filed the proper paperwork on him.
In June, Armwood had to forfeit 2011's 15 victories, and the Class 6A state title, after the FHSAA found five players had falsified residence information or did not make a full and complete move into Armwood's geographic school zone.
In a report obtained by the Times, the FHSAA fined Countryside $2,300 and placed the athletic program on administrative probation for two years. In a breakdown of the fines: Countryside was penalized $600 for allowing Strong to play this season while ineligible (the penalty could have been $2,500 per game but was reduced because the school self-reported the infraction). The program was also fined $100 for not filing the correct paperwork, another $600 for not following proper eligibility procedures and $1,000 for a general failure to comply with FHSAA policies.
Countryside has until Thursday to decide whether to appeal the fine and/or forfeits; the school has already chosen to appeal Strong's eligibility status. The hearing is Nov. 1 in Bradenton.
"I wanted this for my senior year, to be able to get into the playoffs and be able to compete for a state championship," said offensive lineman Brandon Pertile, one of 24 seniors on Countryside's roster. "But now it looks like that's going to be taken away. It's tough, real tough. Hopefully something will happen on the appeal."
Countryside was supposed to have filled out an EL-4 form, which is required for international students, but did not because Strong told school administrators he was an American with dual citizenship. The school had asked for clarification on his eligibility in the spring, and the FHSAA said he would have to sit out because he transferred during the semester.
It initially appeared Countryside might be able to avoid having to forfeit wins thanks to House Bill 1403, which was passed in July. The new law requires the FHSAA to try to avoid punishing an entire team for the improper actions of a few. But in this case, according to the report, Countryside was told to follow up during the 2012-13 school year about Strong's eligibility and did not. So this was not a case of an inadvertent use of an ineligible player, according to the FHSAA.
Coach Jared Davis said Wednesday afternoon that he was told by someone in the Countryside administration that Strong was eligible to play this season. He declined to say which official told him. Davis added that the school will file an appeal Thursday.
"The kids obviously were hurt by the decision," said Davis, who addressed the FHSAA penalties at practice. "It affects all of us, but it's not like they're walking out. They've got too much pride to do that. This team has a lot of character and resolve, and will finish out the season."
By forfeiting the six wins, which include Class 7A, District 9 victories over Northeast and Seminole, Countryside is all but eliminated from the postseason, which it has made the past four years.
Pinellas Park (5-2, 3-0) is in first place in the district, and Northeast (6-2, 2-1) is second. Countryside is now 2-6 and 1-2. Pinellas Park and Countryside play each other Friday; the Patriots could afford to lose one more district game.
“(Friday's) game (against Countryside) very much counts," Pinellas Park coach Kenny Crawford said. “It’s a shame that this overshadows a very good football game, but I think this will also motivate them to prove they are a good team. They are the defending district champions and nothing changes that. They are just put in a spot now where it’s tougher to defend."
To read the full report, go here.
What they're saying
Reaction to the FHSAA's sanctions against Countryside
“It’s very unfortunate for the kids over there. You really hope that things were done unintentionally. It’s unfortunate that it happens to a good group of kids who work very hard." Pinellas Park coach Kenny Crawford
“We don’t want it this way and I honestly feel for those kids at Countryside. They are one of the best teams in the county and it’s not the way we want it. But if we’re fortunate enough to beat Seminole and then beat Clearwater, then it extends our season and we’ll welcome that." Northeast coach Mike Jalazo on moving up to second in the district after Countryside's forfeits
“People might get excited about something like this, but I don’t. We had our chances against them and Pinellas Park and we didn’t get it done. If we play well enough to win the next two, then we get a bye week to prepare for (No. 1-ranked) Manatee." Jalazo
Staff writer Rodney Page contributed to this report.