In the span of barely a week, three Minnesota high school football teams were flagged for a penalty with far greater consequences than yardage or loss of down.
Ineligible player on field. Penalty: Forfeit the win.
The infraction cost Osseo, then ranked No. 5 in Class 6A, two victories and knocked the Orioles from the undefeated ranks earlier this month. Mankato West saw four victories stripped away and dropped from 4-1 to 0-5. In both cases the ineligible player involved a transfer or residency issue.
Early last week, it happened again. This time, Waseca reported using an ineligible player in a September game against Minneapolis Washburn. The resulting forfeit wiped out Washburn's only loss.
It's not just a football problem. Last month, top-ranked Lakeville North forfeited a volleyball match against Burnsville after it was determined that it used a player who had exceeded the daily playing limits for varsity and junior varsity competition.
High school forfeits appear to be on the rise and reflect the serious nature of using an ineligible player, whether the player is a key starter or sits on the bench.
"We've been talking about how to apply Bylaw 111 [transfer and residence] at all eight area meetings for the past five years,'' said Craig Perry, the Minnesota State High School League associate director who oversees eligibility matters. "The rules are specific and clear and not subject for interpretation."
Forfeits can harm more than just a team's conference finish. Team records are factored into seedings for section playoffs, which begin next week in football. A lower seed can result in a team playing a more difficult first game or not having the advantage of playing at home.
The effect on players is more varied, from feeling a hollow sense of victory when it turns a loss into a win to rallying around adversity.
One of Osseo's forfeited games meant turning a victory against big rival Maple Grove into a loss. Osseo athletic director Ray Kirch took the blame for what has been described as an administrative error involving a player who saw little game action.
Kirch said after the matter was reported one of Osseo's offensive linemen "gave me a bear hug and told me, 'We love you, Kirch.' We can play the victim role or we can lock arms and go forward. They've chosen the latter."
Administrative lapses cited
While details of the cases are not made public, most typically fall into two categories. One involves competing in junior varsity and varsity games on the same day and playing more quarters or periods than is allowed, Perry said. They also reflect cases of student eligibility being incorrectly determined or applied, such as those involving students who transfer or change residences.
So far in 2012, 24 cases of alleged violations across all sports were brought before the league's eligibility committee, according to minutes of five board meetings to date. That compares to 18 instances in each of the last two calendar years, each of which had six meetings, the minutes show.
The minutes show violations across many other sports, including wrestling, hockey, track and field, cross-country, swimming, volleyball and dance team.
Perry speculated that league efforts to raise awareness of eligibility guidelines among its member schools could be translating to increased reporting of violations.
Need for better checks
"It's made us more aware as coaches to have our ducks in a row,'' said Maple Grove coach Matt Lombardi, whose team now has an undefeated record by virtue of picking up a victory with one of Osseo's forfeits. "Every coach knows the rule, but where it gets sticky is sometimes kids will tell you they moved and that they have everything, but then you find the paperwork is not settled. So you do have to be more thorough checking up on that part of the process."
Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins said he makes sure to take the necessary steps to ensure the eligibility of every new player he receives before they step on the field.
"I'm not going to accept a kid in the program without contact with his former coach and previous school,'' Jenkins said. "We need to know ahead of time before we game plan with a new kid."
Roseville athletic director Jeff Whisler can empathize. He was in a similar capacity at Mahtomedi in 2008 when it forfeited five victories stemming from a foreign exchange student's ineligibility.
"It was as simple as a click in a computer program to recognize a resident vs. a nonresident," he said. "It can happen very easily with the volume of kids that go through schools and activities."
Mankato West coach Mark Esch said his team took its punishment head on and believes it is better for it. The team lost its next two games after the forfeits were announced but won big Friday.
"When we face adversity and take it on the right way, we all come out stronger in the end," Esch said in an e-mail. "This issue has unified us and will strengthen us in the end. We are not bitter. There was a mistake made and we have to move on."