Monday, December 18, 2017
Education

Pasco schools closely scrutinize athletic eligibility cases

All Chris Dingwall wanted was to play football at Wiregrass Ranch High School.

It was his senior year, and he had worked hard to improve his grades and attitude so he'd be allowed to wear the maroon and silver. He practiced all summer.

But first Dingwall had to win his eligibility.

A new Pasco County School Board rule, adopted in the spring, mandated that any student transferring high schools had to sit out competitive athletics for a year. The board left room for exceptions and gave the superintendent the power to grant those on a case-by-case basis.

All requests to transfer and play, no matter the reason, would go to a committee of principals, assistant principals and athletic directors for a ruling.

Dingwall's fate lay in their hands.

• • •

The committee had proved accommodating in its first three sessions, granting 41 of 44 applications to students seeking a waiver of the board's new rule. Most had made "complete moves" from one school to another, demonstrating family, financial or academic reasons for their transfers.

Such was the case of Shelby Wessling, whose family relocated from Naples to Holiday over the summer to live closer to her grandparents.

After discerning that Shelby hadn't been recruited from Naples High and that her full family moved with plans to live in their new home, the committee granted the sophomore permission to cheer at Anclote High.

If an issue caused the committee members angst, it was the transfer requests that appeared to be based on athletics only — even if the student was returning to his or her zoned school.

The Hillsborough School Board, which has a similar policy to Pasco's, has allowed some students citing sports to play after transferring from a private school to their home campus. That would be a deal breaker in Pasco, said committee member Matt McDermott, a Fivay High School assistant principal.

One student, for instance, asked to play football at a Pasco high school after competing at Armwood High in Seffner for two years. (The district did not release his name or school.)

The committee turned him down. The student's family appealed.

Executive director for support services Ray Bonti, the superintendent's designee to hear the appeals, said he wasn't convinced the transfer was for anything other than the chance to play ball.

"I would have to hear something that would really move me to make a different decision than the entire committee," Bonti said. "I didn't hear anything."

With lawmakers having placed the onus on districts to self-police athletic transfers, the committee takes its role seriously.

"We do our very best job to make sure the people that are coming to our schools are there for the right reasons," said panel member Jim Michaels, Mitchell High principal.

• • •

Dingwall and his mom, Frances, had five minutes Wednesday to make their case, with time afterward for questions.

They acknowledged their nerves, particularly after seeing the conference table surrounded by administrators armed with document-filled laptops.

But they also had some confidence that the system would work in their favor. Chris' move to Sunlake High as a junior was, after all, always intended to be temporary.

By his own admission to the committee, Dingwall often got into trouble as a freshman and sophomore. He promised to turn things around as a junior but got into a fight on the second day of classes.

He was reassigned to Sunlake for a year. His discipline referrals evaporated, while his grade point average inched above 2.0.

"I worked hard for what I wanted to get," he told the panel.

District athletics supervisor Phil Bell asked Dingwall why he didn't just stay at Sunlake, where he had found success. His mom blamed the commute, which had affected her work schedule.

Next question: Could Dingwall avoid the problems that plagued him before?

"Teenagers are teenagers. They still talk about it," he answered. "But I ignore that stuff. "

And because he's back in his school doing well, his mom said, "I think he does deserve a chance to play for his team. … This is his last chance."

• • •

After hearing each family's statements, the committee asks them to leave the room. Then the members deliberate.

Some cases are what they called "slam dunks."

Bell said he might propose a more streamlined process for those requests, although superintendent Kurt Browning has said all cases should have the full committee's scrutiny.

That's particularly important because the School Board, unlike its Hillsborough counterpart, is not part of the reviews.

"I do not want to hear hearings of whether 'my son should be able to transfer to play baseball,' " Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said.

Pasco board members said they trust staff to get the job done. While Hillsborough's board chairwoman has come under fire recently for her personal involvement in a waiver request, Pasco board members said they weren't aware their committee had met, much less what its rulings had been.

Committee conversations get straight to the point. Members don't want families waiting too long.

Dingwall's case was no exception.

Wiregrass Ranch athletic director Dave Wilson, who abstained from the vote on his student, told his colleagues that once upon a time, Dingwall was a kid he wouldn't want his son to hang with. Now, though, "he's a different kid. His maturity is different."

Hudson High assistant principal Toni Zetzsche added that Dingwall had the right to return to Wiregrass Ranch. And there was nothing indicating that the move had anything to do with sports: He had never played a second on any team at Sunlake High.

The group voted, then called the Dingwalls back into the room.

• • •

"I'm going to cry," Frances Dingwall said, wiping her eyes.

Her son circled the room, shaking everyone's hand and thanking them. He finally smiled, too.

"Friday, I'll be dressed out in pads and jersey and everything," he said. "That's what I'm kind of proud of."

His mom held her arms out.

"Can you hug me now?"

He did.

Dingwall admitted that he had no idea if he ever would play a down. His mom, fearful he might get hurt, didn't sound too upset at that notion.

"I hate the sport," she said. "He loves it."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

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