Edison’s boys’ basketball team had won 13 of its last 14 games last year. The Eagles were on a roll.
Coach Terry Henderson said the squad had “turned the corner” and already won two games in the National District tournament. They were prepping for the district championship game against Mount Vernon, a team they had already beaten twice.
And that’s when the season ended.
Tyrone Mackall, junior at the time, didn’t perform well in one subject of the state’s mandatory Standards of Learning exam, and became ineligible but continued to play.
Berk Stoy, the Edison Director of Student Activities, didn’t want to go into precise detail about how the ineligibility was overlooked, but he did say “it was a clerical error, and unfortunately it was a violation.”
As a result, the Eagles had to forfeit their playoff wins, and Falls Church took their place in the playoffs.
“If you fail the SOL, you fail the class,” Mackall, now a senior said. “Since the test grades came back late, the athletic director didn’t catch it. To me, I thought I should be penalized, not the whole team.”
Coach Terry Henderson, an Edison alumnus who was in his first season coaching the boys’ varsity team, brought the players into a meeting room and let them know the season was over.
“Somebody was ineligible,” Mackall remembers the coach saying. “Everybody was crying.”
Henderson told Mackall he had the failing grade, and he said he was devastated.
“I went to my team and said it was my fault, I messed up,” Mackall said. “We had a good chance to go to states.”
While Henderson didn’t go that far, he agreed the Eagles were going to be a strong team in the Northern Region tournament.
“Everything we had been practicing all came together, and to have it end that way, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. We are not going to let what happened to us last year happen again this year,” Henderson said. “There’s no telling what would have happened down the road, but our kids were slighted. … It was devastating, not only to the kids that had worked so hard, but to the coaches, the staff and the community.”
The Eagles, 7-0 in the National District seem to be in a similar situation this year. They should win the National District tournament and advance to the regional event against the top teams from the Liberty, Patriot and Concorde district. This may be the year where Mackall and his teammates try to make up for being eliminated prematurely in 2011.
But what is Edison doing to be sure its grades are up-to-par this season?
“As a school we’re continuing with our checks and re-checks,” Stoy said. “I don’t think we’ve tried to re-invent the wheel. We’ve had two (athletic) seasons come and go, and things have worked out.”
Stoy explained that the winter sports, since they come at the midpoint of the school year, cover two grading periods. As a result, there’s a lot of pressure on counselors, teachers, activity office staffs and students to make sure there are no mistakes made when processing grades.
“My office will work in conjunction with the guidance office once the grades have been submitted. We’ll review all this current semester’s academics,” he said.
Edison, however, isn’t the only school to have had a basketball season nullified because of ineligible players. Hayfield, the Eagles’ nearby rival, had an amazing 19-0 season in 2009-10, but were not able to count any of the wins and taken out of playoff contention after beating Falls Church in the 2010 district tournament. The school blamed its mistake on bad weather that prevented grades from being turned in before the playoff game. Consequently it notified the state about its ineligible player too late.
In the same season, T.C. Williams forfeited all of its wins for using two players who had already used their four years of high school athletic eligibility.
“I hate commenting on this because it was such a hard time for us and our community,” said E.W. Nowland, the Hayfield Director of Student Activities. “We’ve revamped what we do to check eligibility. It’s no longer a one-person job.”
Nowland said he confident his department can handle the role of confirming every athletes eligibility this season and in the future.
“We’ve made a promise to our community to make sure it never happens again,” he said.
Nearby, West Potomac DSA Aaron Helmick said he understands how that sort of thing might happen to a county school.
“The things that have happened to previous schools could happen to any school at any time,” he said. “The one thing is we have a good support staff in our office and within our school. We have a good relationship with student services.”
Helmick mentioned that monitoring student-athlete eligibility can be important for schools’ playoff success, because sometimes a second benchmark date during a season means a team can add a player to its roster late in the season.
“We had a basketball player a few years ago who actually became eligible, and it helped us to make a little run in the playoffs a few years ago.”
David Houston, the coach of a Wolverines team that currently sits in second place in the competitive Patriot District said he never wants to have to go through what happened at Hayfield and Edison.
“I can’t imagine how they felt,” Houston said. “I know the two coaches from those schools. It was an oversight. And we try to have three or four eyes on [the grades].”
The Wolverines have a coaching staff filled with teachers and counselors from the school, which Houston said makes a big difference.
The quarter ends this week, and at midnight on Jan. 29, some players will become ineligible, said Helmick.
Henderson said he’s instituted mandatory homework help periods and study halls during the season. If his players don’t bring their books to weekend practices, for example, they can’t get on the court. At the team’s tournament in Norfolk, Va. during the semester break, the Edison basketball players blocked out time for studying.
But, Henderson said, adults can only tell the players to study so much. The rest of the pressure has to come from teammates.
“Matt Murphy, James Campbell, Derek Miranda,” Henderson said, listing the players he sees as leaders. “These are guys who are big contributors to what we’re doing this year. They’re showing the guys how to make it work.”
High school athletes can often envision themselves playing sports in college, but a recruiter’s first question is not “how many points does he score?” But instead, “can he get into school?”
And that’s true for high school coaches. Henderson said he’d rather coach a less talented player who would be on the team all season than a player who might become ineligible before the playoffs.
Mackall, a college prospect due to his football talents—he scored 15 touchdowns last fall for the Eagles as a tight end, said he has recovered from last year’s mistake and he’s doing well this year.
He wants his experience to serve as a warning for younger athletes who might not be paying attention to their grades.
“I’ve been through it, and I messed up,” he said when asked what he might say to a ninth grader. “That’s a feeling that you would never want to feel. It hurt too much.”
But letting his team down last year has resulted in one positive:
“It’s extra motivation for this year,” he said. “As a leader and a senior, I need to make sure I get a state championship ring to make sure we show that last year was a mistake. Just to repay my teammates.”