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Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015: The 2014-15 New York school year in review

   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."

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   That was not nearly the end of the saga. Three weeks later, Middletown's mayor criticized Eastwood for spending more than $18,000 in district funds to conduct the initial investigation, another chapter in the combative relationship between the parties.

   And then a NYSPHSAA appeals panel voted unanimously May 14 to repeal the postseason ban out of concerns that accounts from the two investigations conflicted. The remaining sanctions were kept in place, however.

   For sustained passion (spilling over into hatred as well as vile behavior way too often) neither the Aquinas nor Burke situations could match the spectacle in Lancaster.

   The future of the nickname and mascot was already a hot topic in the Western New York community before the school year started, and the debate intensified as Lancaster district officials continued to de-emphasize the Redskins motif. It was the stated intention of those officials to hold off on a decision until at least the summer in hopes that community factions might be brought to the table to work out a decision everyone could live with.

   That more or less went out the window in mid-February when "Save The Redskin Tradition" banners popped up around town ahead of a scheduled March 3 community forum.

   Still, the process was moving along on schedule until two days after the forum, when Akron Superintendent Kevin Shanley revealed a meeting between his boys lacrosse players and school officials and broached the possibility of boycotting a scheduled March 31 non-league vs. Lancaster. Akron's campus is in close proximity to the Tonawanda Creek Reservation, home to the Tonawanda Band of Senecas, and the majority of the boys lacrosse team identifies as Native American.

   In short order, officials from Lake Shore and Niagara-Wheatfield said they were calling off scheduled lacrosse games, and by mid-March Lancaster's school board voted unanimously to drop the Redskins nickname. Even before the board voted on the resolution, many in the crowd of at least 500 people began shouting and booing the board. Some stood up and turned their backs to the board as members spoke.

   The Lancaster decision left Canisteo-Greenwood and Oriskany as the last two New York districts carrying the Redskins nickname.

   District-wide student voting in May led Lancaster officials to announce they had adopted "Legends" as the new nickname, but that by no means ended the battle. Two new school board members who ran on a pro-Redskins agenda were seated in July amid strong indications that they intend to push to restore the old nickname.

[ Continued on Page 2 ]

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