Just by sheer numbers, the case of the Ambridge football transfers was unusual. Maybe one of a kind.
Within the past two months, five players left Ambridge and transferred to other schools. These weren’t just any players. The starting quarterback, the two leading rushers, the leading receiver and the only returning lineman all transferred. And maybe there will be a few more leaving.
Even WPIAL boss Tim O’Malley said the league had never seen a case like this.
It turns out four of the players will be eligible to play at their new schools, but one will be ineligible.
The WPIAL board of directors made the rulings after five separate hearings with the players Tuesday to determine if their transfers were for athletic intent, which is against WPIAL and PIAA rules. After the hearings, the board ruled receiver-defensive back Isaiah McNair is ineligible to play football at Quaker Valley this upcoming season because he transferred at least partly for athletic intent.
The WPIAL ruled the other four players eligible for this season - junior RB-DB Davion Jones and his cousin, FB-LB Tariq Jones, at Aliquippa; junior QB Austin French at Beaver Falls; sophomore lineman John Prentice at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic.
Below is some background on the cases. But first some comments from O’Malley and new Ambridge coach Terry George.
Ambridge had contested all the transfers, claiming they were for athletic intent. They claimed the transfers were because of turmoil in the Ambridge program with Dan Bradley resigning as coach and George being hired. At the hearings, George told the WPIAL the transfers were made because the players were worried the team would struggle next year because only one lineman was returning (Prentice). Four of the five who transferred are skill-position players and have some talent.
But O’Malley said the board of directors felt there wasn’t enough evidence from Ambridge to prove athletic intent.
“There has to be objective substantiated evidence. That’s what the transfer rule is based on,” said O’Malley. “It can’t be an opinion. It can’t be ‘we think.’ The difference with the McNair situation is there was some evidence.”
In the McNair case, Ambridge presented evidence of a Feb. 23 tweet from Case Riemer, the boyfriend of McNair’s mother who also trains McNair. The tweet was made in reference to Bradley and it said, “funny how u lie to teenagers that ur in charge of. Glad we found out in time to get the boys out.”
O’Malley was asked about how coincidental it was that the leases for residences of a few of the players all expired in March.
“If you connect the dots, the court of public opinion might be … But from an evidentiary standpoint, nothing was established that would give an indication that the board should vote that [athletic intent was involved],” said O’Malley.
It should be pointed out that neither Ambridge or the WPIAL felt Aliquippa, Beaver Falls, Quaker Valley or North Catholic in any way recruited the players.
Now, comments from George, who is also a teacher at the school:
“These student-athletes’ decisions had nothing to do with me,” said George. “I was on good terms with all of them. My intentions are to never hurt anyone who wants to make a decision to leave the school for one reason or another. But at the same time, I’m hired by the district to instill a quality program with some pride and in doing so, we have to keep our enrolled students in our district.
“Sometimes it’s hard to create evidence. It’s probably easier to hide your reason for whatever decision you make. For our school district to pull up evidence is hard. Throughout our student body, the talk has been the players were leaving because they thought the football team was going to be bad. But that’s hard to prove.”
George said two more Ambridge players have indicated they are waiting to see what the WPIAL rules before they decide to transfer.
“There’s not much I can do about that,” said George. “But I do believe the decision the WPIAL made will have a lot to do with the future of some other student athletes.”
McNair, both Joneses and French all elected to have their hearings open to the media. North Catholic elected to close the Prentice hearing to the media.
It was up to the WPIAL to decide if it was mere coincidence that these players all left within a short period of time.
*Davion Jones and his family said he transferred to Aliquippa because his mother and father separated in January and his father moved to Aliquippa. So Davion moved in with his father and enrolled at Aliquippa in March.
*Tariq Jones said he moved to the Aliquippa district with his father. Jones’ father said he had to move to his parents home in Aliquippa to take care of his brother. Jones’ father said his parents are moving to California in the summer.
*French lived with his mother in Ambridge, but French’s mother said she moved into her childhood home in the Beaver Falls district with her son and daughter for personal reasons. The family now resides in the same Beaver Falls home as French’s grandparents.
*McNair’s mother said she moved from Ambridge to the Quaker Valley district with her son and daughter because it is a better school than Ambridge. McNair’s mother also said the family considered moving last September.
There is no doubt these players will have some kind of an impact in football at their new schools. Maybe a big impact. Tariq Jones was an all-conference linebacker in Class AAA. Davion Jones rushed for more than 700 yards last year at Ambridge.
The WPIAL certainly had a point in saying there wasn’t much evidence to rule against the players. But you wonder what message some disenchanted high school athletes from other schools will get from these rulings.
“The decisions have been made and we’ll move forward,” said George. “You just hope something like this doesn’t happen to a smaller school than us because it could kill football in that school.”