With the support of the Anchorage School Board and superintendent Carol Comeau, the Chugiak Mustangs are appealing the decision that cost them three football victories -- an effort that, in football terms, is akin to a Hail Mary pass.
The appeal will be heard Monday by the board of directors of the Alaska School Activities Association, which last week stripped Chugiak of three victories for using an player who is ineligible because he is home-schooled in a school district other than Anchorage.
"I think we have support," Chugiak coach Duncan Shackelford said. "Whether that will turn ASAA, I have absolutely no idea."
The campaign to get the forfeits overturned, which include a petition that Shackelford said has about 800 signatures, comes with no guarantee of success.
Gary Matthews, ASAA's executive director, said he's never seen the board reverse itself after approving forfeitures.
"I've never known any to be (reversed)," he said Tuesday. "The board will listen and decide, but I've never known that to happen. In fact, I don't know if we've had an appeal of a forfeit before. It's just so unusual. Every board meeting I report five or six schools that have to forfeit games. Usually (the schools involved) just do it and they move on."
Chugiak and its supporters, however, contend that the forfeitures -- and the violation that prompted them -- aren't business as usual.
The ineligible player was on the team because of an administrative error, Comeau said. The person tasked to check eligibility made a mistake, she said, and the entire football team should not have to pay for it.
"Clearly we understand the rule and we do not condone ineligible players playing. I want to be really clear on that," Comeau said. "Where we are concerned, and I know this is the school board's concern, is the extreme consequences for the entire team because of an administrative error that was not the fault of the team."
That was the case Chugiak's football captains intended to make at Monday night's school board meeting.
"My main argument was I didn't feel like we should be penalized for something we had no part in," said senior Kody Trombley.
Trombley and the rest of the Mustangs didn't have to state their case, though, because the board was ready to offer its support even before listening to the players. After asking the players a handful of questions, the board voted unanimously to write a letter of support to the ASAA board of directors.
"This is our fault," school board president Gretchen Guess said Tuesday. "It isn't anybody else's but ours. What I've been told by folks, the mother feels horrible, everybody feels horrible. This is on no one's shoulder's but mine and Carol's."
The ineligible player is a home-schooled student in the IDEA correspondence program, which is run by the Galena City School District. Though IDEA has students statewide, including more than 800 in Anchorage, all of the students are enrolled in the Galena school district. That makes them ineligible to participate in Anchorage School District activities, which are limited to students enrolled in ASD schools or who attend one of two home-school programs that are part of the district.
Employees at Chugiak High assigned with the task of checking student eligibility made a mistake, Comeau said.
In his letter of appeal to ASAA, Chugiak principal Sam Spinella called the error "an administrative oversight related to paperwork."
Students who want to participate in activities must fill out a short form that asks what school they're enrolled in. The activities office then checks on eligibility and forwards a list of eligible athletes to coaches.
Comeau said the process works "if everybody does what they're supposed to do." Principals and activities principals "have all been trained and certainly the expectation will be that activities clerks will be trained as well," she said.
"I understand there's a huge amount of paperwork involved, especially with the new concussion legislation, but I believe our procedures are clear," she said.
Comeau plans to speak at the ASAA hearing, and the school board will deliver a letter of support to ASAA board members.
That support, the Mustangs hope, will make a difference.
"If we have any kind of chance, it's good to have them on our side," said senior captain Justin Schneider. "They're pretty powerful."
The appeals hearing, which will be part of ASAA's regularly scheduled board meeting in Anchorage, will come two days after the end of the regular season and four days before the state playoffs.
That means the playoff picture could be cloudy until ASAA rules, because if the forfeits are overturned, Chugiak could again become a playoff contender in the eight-team Cook Inlet Conference, which sends its top four teams to the playoffs.
With the forfeits, the Mustangs are 1-5 in the conference with one game remaining (their lone victory came against defending state champion West on Friday, two days after the ineligibility came to light and the player in question was removed from the roster). Service, South, East and West have all secured playoff spots.
Without the forfeits, the Mustangs would be 3-3 in the CIC and locked in a two-way tie for fourth place with West. Just one game ahead and tied for second place at 4-2 would be East and South. Depending on this weekend's results, all four could finish with 4-3 records.
South was the primary beneficiary of the Chugiak forfeits because the Wolverines lost to Chugiak earlier this season. Other teams that picked up forfeit victories are Eagle River, which is 1-5 in CIC play and out of playoff contention regardless of what ASAA decides, and Colony, a nonconference opponent that plays in the Railbelt Conference and is also out of playoff contention regardless of the decision.
No matter what ASAA decides Monday, Matthews said, Chugiak players won't be stripped of individual statistics they have compiled this year. That will happen only to the ineligible player, he said.
Daily News reporter Jeremy Peters contributed to this story.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News