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EAST LAKE'S MESS PERFECTLY SUITED FOR FOOTBALL FIELD

Just in case you thought high school football had the market cornered on controversy, what with the hundreds and hundreds of players who transferred last year, we bring you some Pinellas County volleybrawl.

But first: it wasn't really hundreds. More like 50 or so. But trying to keep up with all the moves, it felt like hundreds and hundreds.

Now volleyball steps into the transfer vortex, with East Lake being accused of luring four out-of-zone players via coach Terry Small's successful Pinellas Heat Elite club program.

The East Lake Four - freshmen Brianna Nichols, Jess Steidl, Brooke Burkett and Casey Moore - cannot play until the Florida High School Athletic Association determines whether they were recruited. And until then, Pinellas County volleyball is all the rage ... errr, all enraged.

They are bickering on the blogs, coaches and parents are peppering each other with nasty text messages and the parents of the players being held out are demanding answers.

The rule is simple: players can't follow their coaches around, whether it's a football player following an assistant to another school or an eighth-grader following her club coach to a school she isn't zoned for.

If they do, it's just "assumed" recruiting was involved.

No exceptions, the FHSAA told me a few weeks back.

But the parents say they sent their daughters to East Lake for the education programs - three of them got into the school's highly touted engineering program.

Last time, just a few months ago, that argument worked just fine.

East Lake was formally accused of recruiting by Countryside last year, which claimed that two of the players Small coached in his club program had decided to play for him in high school even though they weren't zoned for the high school.

The FHSAA came in and cleared him, though his accusers say they were never asked for the supporting documents they swear they had.

Regardless, the FHSAA said that enrolling in the engineering program was a valid reason for attending a school out of their zone, according to East Lake principal Bob Poth.

In June, East Lake was cleared.

"I said, 'What are we going to do to keep this from happening in the future,''' Small said.

Nothing, apparently, because here we go again.

Instead, Small - and a good many others - is emotionally drained from another round of accusations, even offering to resign if the East Lake Four could play again.

This time, Small doesn't know who filed the complaint.

The most popular theory, at the moment, is that it is an East Lake parent concerned his daughter is going to lose playing time, as opposed to Countryside or Palm Harbor University, as has been reported.

That would certainly be embarrassing for other East Lake parents and some Pinellas Heat coaches, who have spent the past few days hammering Cougar and Hurricane coaches.

(Might wanna get those apology text messages cued up, folks, just in case.)

The FHSAA is expected to rule on the East Lake Four at a hearing next month, far too long for a situation it addressed a few months ago and should be able to address even more easily and quickly this time around.

Instead, Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso - who oddly wasn't even involved in the first round of accusations a few months back, Small said - has stepped in and suggested there is evidence of wrongdoing, according to Poth, and the FHSAA has suggested the girls sit until it can get to it.

The FHSAA was unable to comment on the situation Monday.

This is the slippery slope high schools choose to skate when hiring club coaches, many of them excellent at what they do but certainly open to this kind of scrutiny.

Is it fair?

Yes, it's fair to take a close, hard look, to make sure hand-picked all-star teams don't ruin prep sports, that the kids whose parents are forking out the cash for club aren't displacing the kids who aren't, to make sure high school athletics remain open to everyone. But I don't believe Small recruited anybody. Recruiting is a word thrown around too freely these days, and generally misused.

I think parents are the captains of this ship, and they steer their kids where they want them, and you can never stop that.

There are well-meaning rules, and as long as they exist they should be followed.

Sooner or later, though, the adults in charge are going to have to learn how to read and interpret those rules, so young kids don't have to be thrown into a storm and tossed about as their season drowns in a sea of bitter blog comments, tasteless text messages and vexing vitriol.

John C. Cotey can be reached at jcotey@sptimes.com

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