The football season ended for the Chugiak Mustangs on Monday without the snap of the ball -- but only after a booming punt by the Alaska School Activities Association board of directors gave the Anchorage School District the final say on the matter.
Chugiak in essence lost twice Monday -- first when the ASAA board denied the school's appeal of the ASAA decision that stripped them of three victories for using an ineligible player, and then again when ASD Superintendent Carol Comeau relied on the Cook Inlet Conference's football bylaws to determine whether Chugiak should get one of the conference's four playoff berths anyway.
Those bylaws say playoff berths are determined by win-loss records. And because ASAA's board did not overturn the forfeits, Chugiak finished seventh in the eight-team conference with a 2-5 record. Comeau ruled that berths in this weekend's state quarterfinals will go to the teams with the four best conference records -- Service (7-0), South (6-1), East (4-3) and West (3-4).
Chugiak beat all of those playoff-bound schools but Service, although its victory over South was one of those forfeited. The wins over West and East came after senior kicker Craig Lowe's ineligibility was discovered and he was removed from the team.
Comeau said her decision was first "based on what ASAA decided to do -- that the three forfeits must stand."
Then, she said, "we got out the Region IV bylaws, which prevail."
Comeau cited a section of the bylaws that says "a conference championship team shall be designated on the basis of the win-loss conference record."
"That line very clearly gives me no latitude to decide to send Chugiak in the place of a team with a better win-loss record," she said.
Last week, Comeau and the Anchorage School Board agreed to support Chugiak's appeal of ASAA's decision to strip the Mustangs of the three victories that came with Lowe in uniform. A mistake in the Chugiak activities office put Lowe on a list of students eligible to play football at the beginning of the season, and Comeau and the School Board were in agreement that punishing the entire team for an administrative error was unfair.
ASAA's board of directors was not persuaded, though, and let the forfeits stand.
"One of the things we talked about was that at some level, it almost always comes down to an adult making a mistake, and we have never waived the forfeiture of games," ASAA board president Billy Strickland of Bethel said when announcing the decision to deny Chugiak's appeal.
However, he said, the decision to award state tournament berths is made at the region level. So, he said, it was up to Region IV, which consists of the eight Anchorage public schools, to decide which four schools advance to the playoffs.
"Not to totally take it off our plate, but you now have the ability to do what you asked us as a board to do," Strickland said. "... You have in your power (the ability) to clean up an error made in your own school district."
But the Anchorage School District does not have the ability to overturn the forfeits to conference opponents South and Eagle River, and to non-conference opponent Colony. So Comeau said she had to make her decision based on Chugiak's conference record of 2-5, not the 4-3 conference record the Mustangs would have had if their appeal had been granted.
"I'm disappointed that they gave it back to us to make that decision," Comeau said, "but we had no recourse but to follow our own Region IV rules."
At Monday's hearing, Chugiak co-captain Kody Trombley -- one of 19 seniors on the team -- likened the forfeits to a passenger in a car getting a speeding ticket because the driver was going too fast.
Coach Duncan Shackelford, who opened his remarks with a quote from Bill Wash and ended them with a quote from Vince Lombardi, argued that the team shouldn't be sanctioned because someone in the Chugiak activities office fumbled.
"We ask ... that these boys be granted the dream that some have had since they were old enough to play a sport," he said. "A dream that shouldn't end because of a simple clerical error that they had absolutely nothing to do with."
Lowe, the ineligible player, does not qualify to participate in Anchorage School District activities because he is enrolled in the Galena City School District as part of Galena's IDEA home-school program. ASD activities are limited to students enrolled in district schools or in one of two home-school programs run by ASD, the Family Partnership and Frontier charter schools.
Lowe, who attended Chugiak as a freshman, wound up on the list of eligible players because someone in the activities office made a mistake when looking at his transcript, Chugiak principal Sam Spinella told the ASAA board. The transcript had a year-by-year list of where Lowe has attended high school; that list said he was at Chugiak as a freshman but in the IDEA program as a sophomore, junior and senior.
ASAA board members asked Spinella and Shackelford several questions, many of them pertaining to eligibility checks.
Spinella said once the initial eligibility list is circulated at the beginning of the school year, eligibility isn't checked again until the end of the first quarter, which this year is Oct. 14. One ASAA board member said that at his school, it is checked weekly.
Asked why no one noticed that the home-school player didn't attend team study halls or film sessions, Shackelford said study hall is required only for freshmen and sophomores and upperclassmen who are struggling academically. As for film sessions, "I don't have kickers watch too much film," he said.
Asked why the season was six weeks old before Lowe's ineligibility was discovered, Spinella said Chugiak didn't learn about it until someone from another school brought it up.
Comeau said the screw-up will bring changes to the district's activities offices.
"We are taking this personnel mistake very seriously. We're not letting that part go away," she said. "When I saw that transcript, it was abundantly clear to me it was an IDEA program.
"This error did not need to happen. The assistant principal was an experienced activities principal and should have known that this charter school was not part of the district."
Comeau said the district has already reviewed eligibility requirements with principals but said eligibility needs to be checked more often, not just at the end of each quarter.
"We're gonna have to figure out a way to do more frequent checks, there's no doubt about it," she said.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or call 257-4335.