The Belle Vernon softball team got bounced from the WPIAL playoffs because it had to forfeit three regular-season games for using two ineligible players. Now let's try to explain some things.
Judging from some "tweets" and emails I've received, it seems many need an explanation about the rule and its logic. Some apparently think it's a bad rule. So so we will try to explain here and also use the help of PIAA director Bob Lombardi (see below).
I would be willing to bet that probably 95 percent of parents of high school or junior-high athletes do not know the rule concerning ninth graders who play on a freshman team and their ineligibility for varsity/JV teams. Understandable. I know coaches who do not even know it. It's just a shame that Belle Vernon, the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion, gets knocked out of the playoffs because either somebody did not know the rule, forgot about it or thought they would get away with breaking it.
It's a shame Bailey Parshall (pictured and one of the WPIAL's best pitchers) and her teammates will not get a chance to play in this postseason. But other teams over the years have been thrown out of playoff contention because someone screwed up and a team had to forfeit games. Unfortunately, it happens.
Now let's try to explain:
THE CASE FACTS: Belle Vernon had qualified for the WPIAL playoffs with a 9-3 record in Class AAA Section 3. The record put the Leopards in second place and the top three teams from each section qualify for the postseason. But Belle Vernon forfeited three wins against West Mifflin, Trinity and Ringgold because it used ineligible players. The losses moved Belle Vernon to fourth place and a forfeit win moved Trinity from fourth to third.
THE RULE: The reason the players were ineligible is clearly pointed out in Article 19, Section 2 of the PIAA by-laws: Under PIAA rules, which the WPIAL follows, an athlete who starts the season and plays even one game for the freshman team can't move up to the JV/varsity teams under no circumstances. Belle Vernon used the two ninth-graders in three games when they were ineligible to play in those games. Under PIAA rules, a team must forfeit any games which an ineligible participates, no matter how much the athlete plays in the games.
Obviously many ninth graders play on varsity and JV teams. That is not against any rules. But many teams still have ninth-grade teams for various sports. If an athlete starts the season and plays a game for that ninth-grade team, the athlete must stay on that team. The athlete can play in two preseason scrimmages and then move levels, but he can't play in a game and then move levels. The rule also works the other way. Let's say an athlete in ninth-grade gets moved up to the Varsity/JV basketball team at the start of the season. After playing in three games on the varsity, let's say the coaches decide that the athlete would be better off in the long run playing on the freshman team. Tough. The athlete can't move back down. Once the athlete starts the season with the JV/varsity team, they must stay there for the entire year.
THE LOGIC: Some of the "tweets" and emails from people claim it's a stupid rule. No, it's not.
Some don't understand the rule. They want to know why it's OK for a ninth-grader to play both JV and varsity. Because there really is no differentiation between those two. They are viewed as "one" team. Varsity is considered the varsity of senior-high sports, and ninth-grade teams are considered the varsity of junior-high sports. Also, many people are under the misconception that a senior can't play JV. He or she most certainly can play JV. There is no rule against it. In fact, it happens. A smaller school might not have enough players for a JV game. So maybe two or three seniors who aren't exactly great players go play in the JV games. Nothing wrong with that.
And because a freshman team is considered the varsity of junior-high sports, I would say 99.9 percent of people don't know that a ninth-grader could play on an eighth-grade or seventh-grade team. That wouldn't make sense because you are taking away a spot from a younger player, but it is allowed.
Now, for some logic on the rule. You could say it's done to promote participation by more students and also, realize it or not, to protect the student-athlete.
Let's let PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi explain some:
"There are a couple things about the rule," Lombardi said. "First, a school or coach has three weeks in the preseason, including two scrimmages, to make a determination of a student's skill set and where they can best compete and represent the school and themselves.
"Also, there's a participation proponent in the rule. We don't want kids going back and forth. That would prohibit participation. We want to promote participation. For example, let's say a ninth-grade kid is like a LeBron James He might go out and play 18 games for the freshman team, 18 games for the JV and 18 at the varsity level. Now he's playing 54 games and really when you look at it, he might be taking two sports away from someone else.
"The rule has been in place for a long time. The schools, the membership, want it. It used to be that we did not let student-athletes participate in two preseason scrimmages. Decisions had to be made before that. But the [PIAA] board put that in to give schools a better chance to evaluate a kid before the season."
Finally, this rule is partly to protect kids. I know there are coaches out there who wouldn't think twice of having a kid practice a few hours with the freshman team and then two to three more hours with the JV and varsity. That's not right. Remember, the schools want this rule.
CONCLUSION: It's hard to say who was exactly at fault in the Belle Vernon case. Principal Jason Boone wouldn't say. Coach Tom Rodriquez wouldn't comment much.
Maybe Rodriguez didn't know the rule, or maybe he forgot. But that's hard to believe because Rodriguez was a middle school coach from 1990-2001 and the varsity coach since 2002. Plus, Belle Vernon did not turn itself in on this rules infraction. Another school alerted the WPIAL, the WPIAL alerted Belle Vernon and Boone investigated.
Maybe this would've never happened if Belle Vernon had an athletic director. Jesse Cramer retired as AD in January and the district has not replaced him. Administrators at the school are trying to do the AD's job. That is ridiculous at a school the size of Belle Vernon. It needs an athletic director.
Maybe this doesn't happen if Belle Vernon had an AD. Lombardi and WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley commended Boone for acting after the situation was brought to his attention Tuesday. Boone investigated immediately and informed the WPIAL Wednesday of the findings and that Belle Vernon would forfeit three games.
In the end, the players suffered. That's unfortunate, but that happens often. It's clearly defined what happens in cases when ineligible players are used. It means forfeits. There was no other way to deal with this issue.