October 31, 2012 10:16:34 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
The West Oktibbeha County High School football team planned on playing a meaningful Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 1A, Region 3 game Friday night at Pelahatchie High.
The Timberwolves expected to have at least one more game after that one next week in the Class 1A playoffs.
All of that changed last week when the Oktibbeha County School District learned it had lost accreditation and that the Mississippi Department of Education had placed a postseason ban on extra-curricular activities for the schools in the district.
"I have spent the entire day consoling some fatherless-children," West Oktibbeha fifth-year football coach Adam Lowrey said. "This is their one passion and it is being taken away from them. If you break the rules and pay the consequences, it is one thing. However, these kids are not at fault for anything that has happened."
As it stands now, the ban will affect all athletic teams at West Oktibbeha County and East Oktibbeha County high schools. The schools will be allowed to play only region games in all sports, and won't be eligible to participate in postseason competition sponsored by the MHSAA.
West Oktibbeha will play Pelahatchie as scheduled Friday night in Pelahatchie. In Crawford, East Oktibbeha will play host to Weir for senior night in another region game.
OCSD conservator Jayne Sargent said Tuesday she received notice of the loss of accreditation last week. She said this accreditation loss -- based largely on sub-standard test scores and low graduation rates -- means both schools will be unable to play anything other than region contests, effective immediately.
"Anything that is a conference game, they can still play." Sargent said. "That holds true for all competitive sports. It also means no postseason play in any of the sports for the duration of the accreditation loss."
Lowrey said the initial postseason ban -- if upheld -- would last three years. At that time, the school district will regain accreditation or a second phase of penalties would be imposed that would be even harsher than the current restrictions.
"I have spent the day talking to all kinds of people from around the state," Lowrey said. "We knew we had issues (with the state taking over the school district a month ago), but we did not have any idea that a postseason ban would be coming. It is very unfair to this group of kids. We plan on having our case heard. Right now, it is people in Jackson wanting to make an example out of a group of kids.
"They don't know the life stories of these kids. They don't know how hard they have worked to get to this point."
East Oktibbeha third-year football coach Randy Brooks had no comment about the potential postseason ban for his school. The Titans didn't win enough games this season to quality for the postseason, so Friday was already going to be their final game this season.
"Right now, all of our energies are on senior night and doing our best to win our final game," Brooks said.
Brooks could feel the disappointment later in the school year. Led by Brooks, the East Oktibbeha County High track and field team is among the best in Class 1A. The track team would be ineligible to compete in postseason play in May 2013.
With West Oktibbeha removed from the equation, the playoff participants from Class 1A, Region 3 would include Noxapater, Pelahatchie, Nanih Waiya, and the winner of Friday's game between Sebastopol and West Lowndes in Columbus.
West Oktibbeha is 8-2 and 6-1 in region play. Friday's game with Pelahatchie was going to break a two-way tie for second place in the region standings and determine which team would earn the right to play host to a first-round playoff game Nov. 9.
"No one in a board room can really understand what these kids have gone through," Lowrey said. "We had five eight-graders on the varsity team my first year. We have had 13 kids who have been with us from the beginning. They have gone from 1-10 that first year to 8-2 this year, which is a new school record.
"The growth of this group of young men has been incredible. They have done everything that has been asked of them. They are leaders in school. Even as adults, it hurts when the young people you care so much about have something taken away from them that means so much to them."
Governor Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency Sept. 28. The state took over the school district that day and removed Superintendent James Covington. A former superintendent for the Jackson Public Schools, Sargent was named conservator of the district. She is expected to remain in that position through the end of the current semester.
Mississippi Department of Education Communications Director Patrice Guilfoyle said a loss of accreditation isn't automatic in these cases but is usually expected. In the past four years, the OCSD graduation rate hovered in the upper 50 percentile.
In basketball, East Oktibbeha competes in Class 1A, Region 5. The Titans were scheduled to open their season Saturday in the West Point Classic. West Oktibbeha competes in Class 1A, Region 4, where region coaches voted to play each other one time this season. Thus, the Timberwolves and Lady Timberwolves would be reduced to a five-game regular season schedule with no postseason.
School officials met Tuesday night to discuss a possible appeal of the postseason ban. The recently passed rule that places Oktibbeha County athletics in jeopardy is considered vague by many parties involved. Lowrey said he wouldn't stop working to get a better clarification of the rule and to get his case heard on an individual basis without the school district simply being made "an example."
One small victory may already have happened. The MHSAA Executive Board is expected to review the case of the Oktibbeha County School District in a special meeting called for Thursday morning. Any appeal of the ban has been placed on hold until after the MHSAA has its say.
"We are going to be heard," said Lowrey, who doesn't plan to attend the meeting but plans to speak to the board via phone. "I just want to the MHSAA to understand who we are and what we are about. I want them to understand our kids and to know them on a personal basis. I want them to hear our case. Then, we can go from there."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter