DADE CITY — A standout Pasco County soccer player will have to remain on the sidelines after a judge on Thursday ruled against him in his lawsuit over the school district's athletic transfer policy.
Michael Mazza, an all-conference midfielder for Pasco High last year, got permission from the district to transfer to Sunlake in the spring.
But once he got there he was told he wouldn't be able to play sports because of the district's policy that any student who changes schools must sit out athletics for a year, a safeguard against recruiting.
Mazza and his father, Salvatore, appealed to the district's Athletic Transfer Participation Committee and then to the superintendent, who both upheld the district's policy. The Mazza family then sued, and on Thursday took their case to Circuit Judge Linda Babb's cramped chambers.
The young man, his father and the family's lawyer, Peter Hobson, sat across from School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso and two associates.
Hobson argued that the district misapplied the law regulating athletic transfers and said it was a matter of semantics between eligibility and participation.
Michael Mazza was eligible to play, according to rules set out by the Athletic Transfer Appeals committee, Hobson said.
Babb countered that he was only eligible for candidacy and subject to participation rules by the School Board. If not, she argued, every student would be eligible to play every sport without even trying out.
Babb told the Mazzas to take their case to the appellate court, as state law directs.
The family said Michael Mazza, who also plays on a club soccer team, requested a transfer to Sunlake to get away from bullying, after some Pasco High students harassed him when he reported some school vandalism to authorities.
"The real reason we moved was for his safety," Salvatore Mazza said after the hearing.
Alfonso said the school had no record of complaints, and on Oct. 28, the district's executive director of support services Ray Bonti wrote the family a letter claiming that Michael Mazza had talked to Pasco soccer coach Barry Grayling about transferring to Sunlake before the vandalism incidents.
Several counties have transfer policies similar to Pasco's, including Hillsborough, which devised its own after an eligibility scandal that cost Armwood High School a district title in 2011. But recently, that policy was challenged by Sickles High School senior Justin Fragnito, who sued the county, saying its policy went beyond state law. Hobson represented Fragnito in that case.
At a recent meeting, the Hillsborough School Board approved a settlement allowing Fragnito to play but not an acknowledgement that the process is flawed. Some board members, however, agreed that the policy needed to be revised. Hobson applauded those efforts and hoped to see something similar in Pasco.
As for the Mazza decision, Hobson said the family is disappointed, but they will fight on. Time is slipping away, he said, and Michael Mazza just wants to play soccer in his senior year.
"I'm an athlete," Michael Mazza said. "It's what I do."