Last Aug. 17, Franco Torrescano De La Torre began high school soccer tryouts knowing his varsity chances depended more on legal battles than foot skills.
The child of divorced parents, he enrolled at Cretin-Derham Hall as a freshman, then moved to live with his father in Mexico for his sophomore year. He re-enrolled at the school last summer, but the Minnesota State High School League ruled him ineligible to play varsity because it was his second transfer.
On that first day of practice, his family asked the high school league for a hearing to have his case reconsidered. The league denied the request but later acquiesced after his family contacted a state legislator who subsequently contacted the league’s executive director.
Torrescano played on the junior varsity and watched the Raiders’ varsity from the sidelines for almost two months.
One day before the Raiders’ first playoff game, an independent hearing officer retained by the high school league upheld the league’s ruling that Torrescano could not play varsity until his senior year.
The family retained a lawyer and filed suit in federal court.
In February — seven months after the family began its battle — the league’s board voted to restore Torrescano’s eligibility for the rest of the school year. Small consolation for a soccer player whose junior season was already lost.
The family is continuing to press its lawsuit, seeking to ensure that other high school student-athletes cannot be hurt in similar fashion.
Appeals, hearings and sometimes reversals can all be part of the league’s process for determining eligibility for athletes. But the process should not have to take seven months, said Andy Sandkamp, Torrescano’s stepfather.
“It’s apparent to me that the league uses delay tactics to the point that a family gives up,” said Sandkamp, expressing a view shared by other parents who have battled the league on eligibility matters on behalf of their children.
The high school league, representing its nearly 500 member schools, isn’t giving up, either. It wants the case dismissed, arguing in court documents that “the process worked ... the decision at the end of the process given to [Torrescano] was the precise relief requested ... varsity eligibility.”
The case, scheduled to be heard Thursday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, sheds light on an eligibility process that also has come under fresh scrutiny from state lawmakers.
A legislative audit of the organization was approved last month at the request of Rep. Bob Dettmer, a five-term Republican who coached Forest Lake wrestling for 34 years. The audit, which is expected to focus on student eligibility, is the first such audit of the league since it tightened its eligibility rules in 2007.
“The whole purpose of an audit is to show strengths and weaknesses,” said Dettmer, the legislator who contacted the league in the Torrescano case. “It might come back and show some real positives about the things the MSHSL has in its policies, but it might also show ways it can adjust and give recommendations on how to improve.”
League Executive Director Dave Stead said he could not comment on specific cases but acknowledged “seven months is a long time. I’ve talked at one point in time about changing our process in lots of different ways to get things done more quickly.”
Torrescano’s lost junior season “made me sad and stressed,” he said. “My close friends were on that team. They should change their rules so it’s easier for people to play.”
The Torrescano case highlights the complex and often contentious nature of disputes between athletes who transfer and the league, which has the final say in determining eligibility cases.
Under Minnesota’s Open Enrollment policy, enacted in 1988, a student can attend any school he or she chooses, provided space is available. The league tightened its transfer policies in 2007, decreeing that moves after ninth grade required students to sit out one year of varsity competition.
Most transfers are held to this standard, but others are complicated by factors such as divorcing parents, students with special needs and changes in schools.
“Sometimes, the league takes a one-size-fits-all approach toward eligibility, and not everyone fits into that,” Dettmer said.
The families of Jennifer Barker, a senior tennis player and golfer at Blake, Alyssa Sweet, a sophomore hockey player at Champlin Park, and Emma Schifferle, a senior softball catcher at Maple Grove, all spoke of a lengthy, often convoluted process that proved to be season-crushing for their daughters. All cite situations that fell outside of league guidelines and spoke of the frustrations in getting answers.
The Barkers, Sweets and Schifferles said they were denied what the league calls a “fair hearing,” the final and most binding step in the appeals process. All say that, had their view prevailed in the hearing, it still would have come far too late in the season to allow their daughters to compete.
“It’s all so maddening,” said Terri Schifferle, Emma’s mother. “It specifically states you can request an appeal if you don’t agree with the decision they’re making. They dragged their feet and then, when the season is almost over, they deny the appeal with a letter.”
In the league’s fair hearing, an independent officer is appointed and paid for by the league at a cost of $1,500 to $2,000 per case. About 40 fair hearing requests are made each year. So far this school year, 12 cases have been heard. In five cases eligibility was granted.
“If there were to be a hearing for everyone who wanted one, we’d go bankrupt,” said Stead, whose nearly $9.5 million nonprofit association budget is funded mostly by state tournament-related revenue. It also collects membership fees from schools but receives no direct state funding.
Alyssa Sweet was deemed to have transferred when her school, Achiever Academy, restructured and was renamed Bauer-Emerson Prep Academy, according to her father, Tim Sweet. When the family tried to return last October to Champlin Park, where Alyssa played youth hockey through fifth grade, she was slapped with a second transfer, meaning she could not play varsity.
“We’re not chasing trophies,” Tim Sweet said. “Alyssa just wanted to go home.”
Sweet said the family’s appeal request to the league “ didn’t seem like a high priority. When we finally heard it [was denied], it was during the girls’ hockey state tournament. By that time, the season was over anyway.”
Dan Barker, whose daughter Jennifer was ruled out of eligibility as a senior after moving from Connecticut and repeating her sophomore year, said league officials “certainly don’t give you fast due process. If they are true to their mission, they should try to help find a way to make kids eligible. Instead, they seem determined to stop you.”
League officials said they could not comment on specific cases.
Troy Urdahl, St. Anthony Village activities director, baseball coach and current league board member, said: “Transfers are always controversial, especially when you look at them from a micro level. Talking about specific cases, you won’t ever get away from contentiousness.”
Appeals on the decline
Transferring students seeking eligibility typically first consult with their new school’s athletic or activities director, whose determination is reviewed by Craig Perry, the league’s associate director in charge of eligibility. In most cases, according to league statistics, Perry has backed the school’s decision.
Families unhappy with the outcome can appeal. In each of the past three years, the league has dealt with more than 2,400 student transfers submitted for review per year. On average, only 5 percent are appealed.
“The MSHSL has been great about having a process,” Orono athetic director Bucky Mieras said. “Is it fair and equitable? I truly believe it is. Even if they don’t agree with the final decision, they’ve been treated fairly.”
The number of appeals has declined since the league tightened its eligibility rules in 2007. Critics had decried the creation of “all-star” high school teams as well as the displacement of athletes who had grown up in their districts.
The changes didn’t quell all of the angst. One exception maintains varsity eligibility if a student’s family moves into the new district. Many fans see it as allowing athletes to still find their way to play for desirable programs without losing eligibility.
Making the whole process more clear, and reaching determinations in a timely manner, is the hope of several families whose children missed out on varsity sports.
Stead maintains his staff does not make the rules. Its member schools, through a league body called its representative assembly, create bylaws and vote on any proposed changes.
“We’ve become a target for people who point fingers because they don’t understand this whole process,” Stead said. “Legislators don’t understand the process. There’s misinformation that’s presented that becomes fact.”
Dettmer acknowledged the league’s “very important role in student athletic programs around the state.” The audit, he hopes, can improve the transparency of league actions regarding student eligibility.
“Hopefully, it will bring forth their strengths and ways they can improve,’’ he said. “I think there’s a need to take a look at individual situations more kindly for the sons and daughters of the people we represent.”