SPRING HILL — Less than a year ago, the administrators and coaches for the West Hernando Cougars youth football and cheerleading program were lauded for having turned around a once-forgotten set of local teams.
That image was tarnished this week when the Mid-Florida Football Conference ended the team's season after determining that West Hernando director Bob McFarland had given the league improper paperwork for several Cougar players.
The punishment doled out by the league impacts both the adult leaders as well as the youth participants, who range in age from 5 to 15.
"The Cougars senior football and cheerleading squads were suspended from participation for the rest of this season,'' MFFC president James Hogan said Thursday in an e-mail. "The senior football coach and the senior cheer coach are also suspended from coaching in games or practices. All other levels are to resume play this week."
When reached by phone, Hogan refused to comment further on the ruling, saying only, "You'd have to ask McFarland about it."
"The decision to suspend the program was the right thing to do," McFarland said. "We have complied and plan to continue to comply with everything the conference wants us to do. That's where we stand right now."
The two coaches suspended were varsity football coach Jeff Turncliff and longtime cheer coach and coordinator Debbi McFarland, the wife of the director. The punishments were doled out because of the MFFC policy placing responsibility of roster issues on the head coaches.
McFarland said the issue was over the ages and physicals of certain players and cheerleaders, problems that are hard to detect if parents turn in flawed paperwork.
"The problem with youth registrations is that we are at the mercy of whatever is turned in to us," he said. "We are not at liberty to call every school and check on all these things, and now we're dealing with these allegations."
MFFC administrators met in Haines City Wednesday night at an appeal hearing to discuss an investigation that turned up violations by two members of the 57-team league: the West Hernando Cougars and the Sarasota Gators.
"There were some parents that had called in with some concerns about the leadership," MFFC Public Relations director Andrew Williams said.
The conference is heading into its third week of its 10-game season, but only four West Hernando teams will be going forward. The Senior Cougars had lost their Week 1 game by forfeit to Child's Park on Aug. 20.
The Cougars, based in Spring Hill, had fallen on hard times in the late 1990s, and had all but disbanded after being forced from their original home, Veteran's Memorial Park in Spring Hill.
When McFarland took the reins of the program in 2001, he found a new park for his players, Delta Woods Park, and a new place for the teams to play their home games, Central High School.
With most of the younger players in Spring Hill having to travel to Pasco County or Brooksville for Hernando Youth League to play football, McFarland began to attract local families with an inclusive atmosphere.
The Cougars began to steadily improve and even thrive. West Hernando alumni in the McFarland era include former Nature Coast cornerback Mike Fields, who led Florida high school players in interceptions in 2007; former Springstead running back Mike Greco; former Central all-North Suncoast linebacker Jesse Hartman; Nature Coast running back Matt Breida; and Hernando quarterback/running back Rashad Hart.
The program shifted from the Pasco Police Athletic League to the MFFC last year after going to multiple PPAL Super Bowls because the local league was starting to lose teams and West Hernando was looking to take a step up.
"We just want to make sure nothing like this happens again," McFarland said. "I'm looking forward to seeing these young kids on the field again."