The Titans, who were 10-1 heading into Friday’s Class 1A North regional championship, fielded a player who has used up his four years of eligibility at Milford Mill before transferring this fall, New Town coach Joe Holland said.
Holland said neither he nor the player involved knew the young man was ineligible until this week.
“It was a surprise to him as well as to myself,” Holland said, “and I feel bad for him because he’s come under a lot of fire and he doesn’t deserve that. The heartache I feel is watching my players go through this anguish when they put in the work and earned the second seed in the regional playoffs.”
Monday afternoon, when they were supposed to be practicing on their field in Owings Mills, Holland told his players they were out of the playoffs.
“I commended them on the season they had,” Holland said. “It was really very hard to come up with something to say to them, considering what’s going on. I just focused on what we did all year, how they worked hard and it paid off on the field. It’s just unfortunate that there are circumstanced beyond their control.”
The Titans are the third local football team this season to lose a playoff berth because of a forfeit. Westminster missed out on a Class 4A North berth when it had to forfeit a late-season win for using a junior varsity player who had already played in a JV game earlier in the week. Forest Park forfeited five games for using an academically ineligible player, costing it a spot in the Class 1A South regional playoffs.
Ned Sparks, executive director of the MPSSAA, faces the same question after every forfeit: Why do so many innocent players have to suffer the consequences of someone else’s mistake?
“That’s the hardest part,” Sparks said. “[The violation] could be an oversight, it could be something that is malicious, it could be something that was underhanded, it could be something that was dishonest not on the part of the school but on the part of a parent who wants their child to participate. What is the penalty? The lowest level of penalty is that if you played someone who is ineligible and not supposed to play, then it’s a forfeit. That’s true anywhere that I know.
“Do you measure it by, ‘Well, did he only play one play in a blowout game or a few plays?’ Where do you draw the line that it made a difference? What do we tell the team they played who didn’t play an ineligible player? That’s what makes it difficult.”
While the MPSSAA automatically imposes the forfeit, New Town could have appealed the penalty. Sparks said Wednesday afternoon that no appeal had been filed. Holland said that principal Samuel Mustipher did try to appeal, but that despite the unintentional manner of the violation, it still mandated the forfeit.
Earlier in the season, three other local teams had to forfeit single games — Dunbar for a game-ending brawl, Northwestern for using an ineligible player and Atholton for a summer practice rules violation.
In 31 years as the MPSAA executive director and 41 years in the public school system, Sparks said he has never seen so many forfeits in a single season.
“They occur from time to time, but they average out to one every two or three years,” Sparks said, speaking specifically of football. “For example, I’ve never heard of one in tennis, I’ve never heard of one in track and in basketball, not hardly. Football seems to be the one because there’s so many factors involved. There’s so many players, there’s so many facets to the eligibility component and it’s difficult given some of the circumstances some of the kids have to keep track of them all.”
This isn’t the first costly eligibility error for New Town’s athletics program.
In 2005, the girls basketball team had to vacate its state Class 1A championship for using two ineligible players. After becoming the first team in girls or boys state basketball tournament history to win in its first season as a varsity program, New Town was found to have two players on the roster who should have been at Randallstown. The school principal at the time, Margaret Spicer, discovered the infraction after the championship and did not appeal the forfeiture of the Titans 25-2 season as well as their state title.