A former girls' hockey coach at Park of Cottage Grove High School was acquitted Tuesday on charges that he had illicit sex at his former Woodbury home with two 16-year-old players he had coached the previous season.

Eric P. Darwitz, 32, was charged with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct by a person of authority stemming from a night of alcohol-stoked partying in August 2006. A boyfriend of one of the girls, who each testified during a three-day trial last week, alerted authorities in early 2009, leading to the charges.

The jury of seven men and five women began deliberations Friday, then recessed over the holiday weekend before returning with the not guilty verdict.

"Obviously, I'm very pleased," Darwitz said after the verdict and a long weekend of suspense. "It's been a long 14-, 15-month process, so it's good to have it finally done."

In arguments last week, both defense attorney Earl Gray and prosecutor Mike Hutchinson, assistant Washington County attorney, acknowledged that Darwitz had sex with the girls. The case hinged on whether Darwitz was a person in authority over a minor as defined by state law.

In Minnesota, 16 is the age of consent for consensual sex in most circumstances, but people in positions of authority over minors -- including coaches, teachers and clergy -- are held to a stricter legal standard. Another man at the party was not charged, prosecutors said, because unlike Darwitz, he hadn't been in a position of authority over the girls.

Jurors interrupted their deliberations twice to seek clarification from Washington County District Judge B. William Ekstrum, looking for a clearer definition of "person in authority" as defined by the law and clarity on what constitutes "reasonable doubt."

Darwitz resigned in the summer of 2006 from his coaching job at Park, his alma mater, to accept a job at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault, Minn.

Darwitz was placed on administrative leave from Shattuck after being charged. He subsequently resigned.

Gray said Darwitz told his Park team members in July 2006 that he was resigning from his job and said that the girls heard and understood that announcement.

He argued that meant Darwitz was no longer a legally defined person in authority.

But Hutchinson pointed out that Darwitz resigned from Park on Aug. 9 by means of an e-mail to the school's athletic director, and the sex occurred only two days later. In the girls' eyes, that authority role had not changed, he argued.

Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199