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Pasco School Board allows two 8th-graders on varsity

Eighth-graders Sara Tarnawski and Tracy Westley can play varsity sports at River Ridge High School after all.

The Pasco County School Board voted 4-0 last week to overrule Superintendent Tom Weightman, who had ruled that the girls could not participate.

Both girls are gifted athletes. Tarnawski, 14, is a softball pitcher, and Westley, 13, plays golf. Because they had begun playing varsity sports last year before anyone questioned their eligibility, Weightman allowed them to continue, but said he made it clear the exception would not be allowed the next season.

River Ridge athletic director Jim Michaels said last week that he misunderstood Weightman's order and believed the girls could play with the varsity.

Florida rules allow seventh- and eighth-graders to play varsity sports. However, the rule was intended to help small, rural or private schools that might not otherwise be able to field varsity teams. Though the River Ridge campus includes a middle and a high school under one administration, it has 3,000 students.

Weightman said when he made his decision that he thought it was unfair for Tarnawski and Westley to be able to play when other middle-schoolers in the county couldn't.

Tarnawski had started the first four games for the Royal Knights this season and Westley faced her first competition Tuesday against Gulf High School. The fathers of both girls took time off from work to appeal to board members.

Bill Westley brought a stack of certificates his daughter had won for academic subjects and band. He said she has worked hard to play varsity golf and that he objected to arguments she isn't mature enough to play golf with older girls.

Mike Tarnawski also bragged about his daughter and her exceptional talent. "She's pitched windmill since she was 10," he said, adding that she plays summer softball with older teenagers.

The fathers convinced board members that their daughters had been victimized by a lack of communication between Weightman and Michaels.

Board members said they didn't like that the girls were stuck in a bad situation because of adults. Pam Coulter wondered if it was a case of Michaels "asking forgiveness rather than permission first."

Weightman said he believed the matter had been cleared up and that it wouldn't come up as an issue again.