If anyone had suggested that the saga of a defending state football champion -- thrown out of its sectional tournament because the most coveted junior recruit in the state was ineligible -- would actually have stiff competition for story of the year in New York sports, I would have thought they were crazy.
Instead, it was New York's 2014-15 school year in sports as a whole that was crazy.
And thrilling. And funny.
And sad. And controversial.
In a year in which the Lancaster nickname donnybrook and the Burke basketball recruiting case were ongoing sagas; a Section 3 school district made one of the most shocking coaching changes in recent memory; and too many athletes died on the practice or playing fields, the Aquinas football drama was the year's most captivating story and where the New York State Sportswriters Association's year in review begins.
Schools making unwanted headlines
All things considered, a 5-2 regular season was a positive result for Aquinas as it sought to defend its NYSPHSAA Class AA football championship. The Little Irish lost quarterback Jake Zembiec, the reigning state player of the year, to a Week 2 wrist injury. The QB returned in the Section 5 quarterfinals vs. Pittsford and didn't look especially crisp, but he was expected to start hitting his stride soon while surrounded by a talented lineup.
But it never had the chance to happen. Two days after the Pittsford win, Aquinas officials were notified they had broken a state rule by using Zembiec in a postseason game without having obtained the waiver needed for an injured player who had failed to appear in three regular-season games.
It set off a furious chain of events:
- Aquinas filed in State Supreme Court to overturn the forfeit awarded to Pittsford.
- The first justice assigned recused himself because his wife was employed by the Pittsford schools.
- Justice Scott Odorisi, a graduate of Aquinas rival McQuaid, ended up with the case and handed down a 12-page decision upholding the Section 5 decision.
It ended Aquinas' run of eight straight Section 5 football championships.
Not long after that messy situation, Section 4 had an eligibility issue of its own. Acting upon protests that Elmira Notre Dame had used an ineligible player for much of the regular season and playoffs, officials stripped the sectional Class C boys soccer championship and designated losing finalist Lansing as the state tournament representative.
The Aquinas and Notre Dame situations took less than a week from start to finish. All parties involved in a downstate controversy should have been so fortunate. Some 13 months after the story broke, the battle involving Section 9, John S. Burke Catholic boys basketball and five local public school districts came to a conclusion.
In May 2014, Section 9 announced it would investigate allegations made by five school districts that Burke Catholic improperly recruited players. Middletown Superintendent Dr. Ken Eastwood initiated the probe on behalf of his district, Washingtonville, Monroe-Woodbury, New Paltz and Valley Central, and hired a Long Island law firm to conduct a nine-month investigation.
While awaiting the results of the Section 9 investigation, Burke officials took the pre-emptive step in November of prohibiting its coaches from coaching that same sport in any outside athletic organization.
Section 9 finally delivered its findings in March and banned Burke Catholic from the 2016 boys basketball postseason. The Section 9 Athletic Council ruled "allegations of undue influence and recruiting to be credible," Executive Director Robert Thabet announced.
Additional penalties included three years of probation and submission of annual reports detailing "the admission of student-athletes competing in boys basketball, scholarships given to these same student-athletes and any other pertinent information concerning these matters as required by the council."