The Georgia High School Association acted swiftly Thursday with a ruling that North Gwinnett High School's football team used an ineligible player, and the verdict could mean the forfeiture of games for the state-ranked Bulldogs.
North and GHSA officials had been in contact Wednesday, and as of early Thursday afternoon the state office had not received the necessary paperwork from the school to make a ruling.
When the information arrived at the GHSA's Thomaston office later in the day, executive director Ralph Swearngin ruled the student in question - a transfer from rival Collins Hill - ineligible because he didn't meet eligibility requirements and didn't enroll at his new school in a proper time frame.
North officials elected to appeal, which delayed any possible punishment. A state hardship/appeal board, made up of four GHSA Executive Committee members, will hear the Suwanee school's case on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
North principal John Green declined comment on Thursday evening.
"Dr. Swearngin ruled the student-athlete ineligible and he postponed any penalties because North Gwinnett immediately appealed the ruling," GHSA spokesman Steve Figueroa said. "(North) will go in front of the appeal board on Tuesday at 10 a.m. Dr. Swearngin thought it was in the best interest to forgo any penalties until that meeting."
If the appeal is denied, it could have grave consequences for North, ranked fourth in Class AAAAA with a 6-0 record. Figueroa referred to GHSA By-Law 2.63, which says the minimum penalty for allowing an ineligible athlete to participate is forfeiture of every game that the student played in during the season.
The player in question is a reserve who appeared sparingly in North's games this season, but the Daily Post confirmed through Gwinnett coaches that he saw action in each of the Bulldogs' four Region 7-AAAAA games - Mill Creek, Forsyth Central, Collins Hill and Duluth. Brookwood coaches had not reviewed the tape to see if the player saw action in their game as of Thursday evening, and his participation vs. Walton in a non-region game also was unknown.
The forfeiture of the four region games would be brutal for North, dropping the program from 4-0 and first place to 0-4 and in deep trouble for the playoff race in 7-AAAAA. North's four previous opponents also would replace a loss with a win in the standings, but that scenario wouldn't play out until Tuesday's hearing.
The Bulldogs now face an important region game tonight at Peachtree Ridge with possible forfeits looming early next week.
"Everything that's happened with these kids and whatever potential distractions there are, we've just got to trust in their ability to focus on the game for 48 minutes (tonight)," said North head football coach Bob Sphire, who declined to comment on the GHSA ruling. "They've been resilient all season on the road. This is our fifth time on the road in seven games. They've kept that tunnel vision, that focus, at all times."
According to sources close to the situation, the player's family moved from the Collins Hill district into the North district during the 2005-2006 school year, but the timing of his move is part of what the GHSA considered for the ruling.
If the player moved into the North district prior to or during the first semester of 2005-2006 and chose to still attend Collins Hill for the second semester, he was subject to being ruled ineligible by the GHSA. A student is allowed to finish the current semester at the current school after a family moves, then he or she must transfer to the new school.
Students also have the opportunity to stay at their previous school for another semester, but if they do so the window of opportunity for a transfer to the new district passes. In that case, the student must be cleared by the GHSA in a hardship hearing.
Collins Hill coaches confirmed the student in question finished the 2005-2006 school year at their school and worked out there through most of June before choosing to attend North.
"Dr. Swearngin called it a transfer violation," Figueroa said. "He said the window of opportunity to transfer had closed when the student changed schools, which makes him a migrant student, which makes him ineligible."
Collins Hill officials have said they were aware of a potential problem prior to the season and that an administrator from their school contacted a North administrator about the issue. They said a similar situation happened recently involving a Collins Hill transfer to another local school, but that one was handled without GHSA consequences.
"Administrators at our school contacted administrators at their school in August when we sensed a problem might be caused by this situation," Collins Hill head football coach Larry Sherrill said. "That's our policy at Collins Hill High School."