By Clara Kobashigawa and Gareth Kwok, Print Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor
// Acalanes senior Lauren Etnyre, a promising water polo star already signed to Indiana University, never imagined her final year of high school water polo would end in heartbreak.
In reality, Etnyre’s season never began. After a drawn-out debate over eligibility rules, the North Coast Section (NCS) banned Etnyre from playing for the entire season, before she even had a chance to play wearing the Dons’ signature blue and white.
The disqualification stemmed from Etnyre’s transfer from Campolindo High School to Acalanes early this season. Etnyre dedicated three years of her life to the Campolindo water polo program, playing on the varsity team for two of those years, before transferring to Acalanes on Aug. 30.
During the Cougars’ preseason retreat to Santa Cruz the week before school started, Etnyre participated in a two-team practice activity that under NCS rules had to be deemed as a scrimmage against the Soquel High School water polo team on Aug. 17. She then played in another scrimmage at Acalanes during the weekend of Aug. 26-27 after school had started. Little did she know that these scrimmages would essentially be the last thing she would participate in for the 2017 season. Under California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Rule 600 adopted in 2008, the NCS Commissioner interprets a rule that “a student becomes a member of the regular school team when they participate in a scrimmage or contest.” Due to CIF-NCS Constitution Section 207.B.5.b.vii, no student shall be eligible to participate in the same sport at two different schools in the same school year, and the NCS banned Etnyre from playing at Acalanes.
During the month of August, Etnyre’s mother, Allison, began to take care of Etnyre’s grandmother, who was just diagnosed with cancer, down in Texas. With Allison in Texas for two months, Etnyre decided to support the family back at home.
“I was devastated to learn my grandma had cancer. Not having my mom for support made it that much more difficult. I decided to transfer to be closer to home to help with my younger brother, as my dad works in San Francisco and my brother Carson had torn his MCL at the time,” Etnyre said.
Although Etnyre sacrificed her senior year at Campolindo to help her family, she still intended to play water polo at Acalanes. After Etnyre’s transfer approval on Aug. 28, she and her family began to fill out and submit eligibility reinstatement paperwork in order to play for the Lady Dons.
After considering this paperwork filed by the Etnyre family and approved by both Acalanes Athletic Director Randy Takahashi and the Campolindo Athletic Department, NCS Commissioner Gil Lemmon granted her eligibility to play water polo after the mandated sit-out provision, where Etnyre would be allowed to practice with the team but not allowed to participate in a scrimmage or game until the provision ends, which would be on Oct 2.
However, after the eligibility was granted, Lemmon was notified on the “same day or next” by Campolindo Athletic Director Shannon Rogers about the Soquel “scrimmage,” according to a letter Lemmon wrote to the Etnyres on Oct 2. According to the letter, provided to Blueprint by the Etnyre family, Lemmon stated he could have possibly waived the second scrimmage at Acalanes because it was at a time when Etnyre’s transfer was in the middle of being processed during that Aug. 26-27 weekend. Yet, Lemmon said he “cannot ignore the first scrimmage” at Soquel since it was before the transfer, declaring Etnyre ineligible to play water polo at Acalanes for the rest of the season.
Campolindo women’s water polo head coach Kim Everist and Rogers declined to comment on the situation. Therefore, when they decided to report the scrimmage is unknown.
It creates speculation as to whether notifying NCS about the Soquel event may be an attempt to hurt Acalanes water polo, as well as target Etnyre. When asked, “Was reporting the scrimmage a way at not only hurting the Acalanes team, but to hurt Lauren as well?”, both individuals did not respond.
The Soquel women’s water polo head coach, Ryan Chapatte, even wrote to Lemmon, arguing on Lauren’s behalf. In an email from Chapatte to Lemmon, provided by the Etnyres, Chapatte said “the Campolindo coach contacted me about a joint practice in Santa Cruz” and that in his “mind this was not a ‘scrimmage’ in the sense that we did not plan to make it very game-like” with “no timed quarters and no typical game flow.”
Chapatte continues by saying the two teams “did a little introduction game for the girls and then split them up into teams to play ultimate Frisbee (with balls instead of frisbees).” Both teams “got in the pool and did our separate team warm up routines & basic drills” and eventually played “possessions against each other; three possessions in the half court with a counter attack (transition) and the other team got three possessions, counter attack, repeat, rotate groups.” That part of the practice lasted for less than an hour, according to Chapatte’s email.
The email from Chapatte, combined with statements from Etnyre and her parents, were sent to Lemmon as part of an informal appeal.
“The Etnyres came up to me, and they were obviously not satisfied with the result and decision,” Takahashi said. “I contacted the NCS and explained the situation, and that’s when Mr. Lemmon offered to open it up and review it again. He was willing to revisit. He asked Lauren to write a letter of detailed explanation, which was done. Not asked for, but her father wrote a letter of explanation that included detailed information and questions about the technicality of certain issues that were raised.”
Lemmon reconsidered the informal appeal from the Etnyres and in a letter back to the family on Oct. 20, he upheld his initial decision of declaring Lauren ineligible for the remainder of the season. The informal appeal was not held before an Appeals Panel, because Etnyre’s case did not qualify for a formal appeal. For a formal appeal, the original transfer must be ruled a hardship and although Etnyre transferred for non-athletic purposes, a hardship must be an extreme case such as a school destroyed in the Napa fires.
“I know the two times he set aside rules, and those were for fires or natural disasters, crazy things that have happened. He set aside an eligibility of a parent who had a religious conversion and moved to South Africa for the year,” Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) Associate Superintendent and CIF Executive Committee President Amy McNamara said. “The kid escaped, came home and lost a year of eligibility. He set aside a rule for that kid, but this case is a little bit different.”
Lemmon simply decided to relook at the situation, but unfortunately there was nothing he could do, according to McNamara.
“Gil and I had a conversation, and when I talked to him, he said, ‘my hands are tied’. Campo wasn’t fighting the decision, so there is nothing he could do but apply the rule,” McNamara said.
Although Campolindo refused to comment, if the practice was originally labeled just that, a practice, then what influenced Everist or Rogers to report the event as a scrimmage to NCS?
While they may have reported the Soquel event as a scrimmage, we do not know for sure because they refused to comment.
Campolindo was not required under CIF rules to report the Soquel scrimmage or the later Acalanes scrimmage in both of which she played as a member of the Cougars. The scrimmages would later turn out to be factors in her eligibility standing to end her senior season of water polo. Ultimately, the Soquel scrimmage cost her an entire season of play.
Further, NCS rules would not have imposed any consequences on Campolindo for not reporting the information to NCS, leaving Campolindo reasons for initiating the action open to speculation.
“I can’t know what’s in somebody’s heart or what their motivations were. But it certainly seems as though Lauren’s case could have been handled differently by people more empathetic to her situation,” Acalanes women’s water polo head coach Misha Buchel said. “If they wanted to find a way for her to be eligible, they could have done it. They instead, in my mind, decided that they needed to find a way to make sure she was not eligible and that’s the course that they took.”
Etnyre has a different take on what Campolindo’s motives may have been.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out. The Campo coach told the players on the team the Miramonte coach turned me in when Miramonte had absolutely no idea about the Soquel ‘scrimmage,’” Etnyre said. “I am almost certain it was done out of spite. Allegedly, the coach told several Campo parents that she didn’t turn me in to make me ineligible but just to test the system.”
However, when Takahashi was asked if the Campolindo reported the scrimmage to purposefully influence Etnyre’s eligibility, his response was quite different.
“It would be unfair to say because it would just be speculation,” Takahashi said. “The form goes to Campolindo, they must review it, and they have to approve or not approve. My recollection is at first, the scrimmages did not occur to them.”
Yet even more controversy lies within the definition of the event. The Soquel team, a Central Coast Section (CCS) school, deemed the event as a combined practice. Campolindo, however, called it a scrimmage. In the NCS-Sports & General Rulings Handbook Section 205H, multi-school practices for members of individual sport teams are allowed only, between the conclusion of the league/conference season and the section/state competition in that sport, for those athletes who have qualified for NCS or State CIF postseason competition.
Combined practices can also exist under the rarest of circumstances. For example, if a school did not have the facilities to have a practice and practiced at another school, a combined practice would be fine. With common team sports like water polo, almost under no circumstances would a combined practice be allowed. Instead, it would have to be labeled as a scrimmage or a game under NCS rules.
“If two schools get together, it must be a scrimmage or game,” Lemmon said. “There is no question about that. The rules in another section may be different in another. The NCS must follow the rules of the NCS. It won’t be a dispute in the NCS because schools are not allowed to have a combined practice unless they are circumstances I described.”
The CIF acts as a governing body for the ten sections that follow its guidelines. However, many rules are left up to interpretation by each section. While the NCS may have a certain policy on eligibility, rules in the CCS or other sections may vary. According to McNamara, getting all sections to agree on a certain set of rules, especially transfers, has been difficult to perform.
“Over the years, it is really hard to get the middle part of our district, the more liberal San Francisco Section (SFS), and other parts to be on the same page with transfers. Some people are really old fashioned about it and believe that students shouldn’t transfer,” McNamara said. “But then in districts like ours, people transfer quite a bit.”
The ability to interpret CIF rules allowed for the Soquel event to be termed a scrimmage and not a practice. According to Section 110H of the NCS Sports & General Rulings Handbook, a “scrimmage/jamboree must be listed on both (all, if more than two schools are participating) schools’ season schedule and identified, in writing, as a scrimmage.” In addition to this rule, there are other qualifications that a scrimmage and jamboree must follow.
The penalty for violation is, “Activities between two schools, declared a scrimmage/jamboree by one or both schools, but does not follow the definition of a scrimmage/jamboree, will be declared a contest. Any school in violation of the maximum number of contests rule, Bylaw 101H, will be subject to penalties listed under Bylaw 102H.”
Campolindo originally did not report the scrimmage on their schedule, therefore, by these rules, the event should be ruled as a game. This would mean that Campolindo could possibly be disqualified for the NCS Championship because they could have a game above the maximum allowed. However, according to Lemmon, the ability to interpret CIF rules are left up to the section, and therefore the event was called a scrimmage.
“In the definition, we wrote down a whole list of things that should be done. The fact of the matter is that our schools are not perfect, and at different times they will not do 100 percent of the things they should do, “ Lemmon said. “Naming the event becomes critical to when we are determining if a game is a win or a loss, or if it puts them over the maximum amount of games and eliminates the team from the championship. We look at the criteria, and we make a decision as to whether it is a game or a scrimmage.”
Meanwhile, Buchel believes the NCS ruled to prevent harming playoff implications for both schools.
“Any time I have any contact with another team, it has to fall into either a practice or a scrimmage. The idea that a school would not know that something is a practice or a scrimmage or a game strains credulity,” Buchel said. “The idea that this event is being interpreted two different ways, for two different schools, in two different sections, shows that they were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole to avoid schools being found guilty of impropriety. If that meant the NCS was going to sacrifice Lauren in order to make sure the schools were still eligible to participate, they were going to do that because it was going to be a much bigger headache with many more people involved if there was an entire school banned from postseason competition because they had illegal contacts as opposed to one player losing a season.”
Let this lack of uniformity allow for players such as Etnyre to be ineligible in one section, but able to play in another.
Etnyre is a victim of NCS rules, and she hopes that others will not face the same fate she did.
“As much as I am upset, I am just more worried if this happens to anybody else. I do not want anybody to sit out for an unfair reason,” Etnyre said.
These varying rules can create an unfair environment, allowing some rules to have stricter punishments than others in various sections. Five out of the ten CIF sections count scrimmages as a contest, with the NCS counting scrimmages as contests. Thus, if Etnyre had been a part of a section that does not count scrimmages as contests, she would have been eligible to play her senior year.
“When you have half of the ten that have (scrimmage rules) one way, and the other half have different rules, maybe it’s worth a conversation. ‘Why are we viewing the rules differently?’ It should be uniform. I would like to see that all ten sections adopt it that way or none of the ten sections adopt it that way,” Takahashi said.
However, CIF Media Relations Officer Rebecca Brutlag states that the CIF simply helps enforce policies created by the sections. The goal of CIF is to make sure schools within the section obey the section’s specific rules.
“The sections rules in addition to state rules are applied accordingly. If a section has a rule, the schools in the section agree to follow the rules,” Brutlag said. “So CIF helps govern the member schools, the schools make the rules, but we just enforce the rules the schools agree upon and make.”
The discrepancy in the rules, while each section may think they are benefiting the welfare of the player, sometimes fall short of helping the student. In Etnyre’s case, it allowed for a girl who transferred due to family reasons to watch her senior year season on the sidelines.
“For most people, especially myself, sports are a stress reliever, so taking that away from me when I am going through a hard time is very unfair. My parents and I looked through the rule book, and I really did not break a rule,” Etnyre said. “I don’t think the ruling was looking out for a welfare of a player; I just think that the NCS is trying to take the path of least resistance. ‘No’ is easier to say than ‘yes’, and I think the NCS chose it because it is easier to do.”
In Buchel’s experiences with NCS, the organization tends to lean more on the conservative side of issues and does not adjust to players’ needs.
“In my limited experiences, the NCS rarely considers the welfare of the individual player; they only look at the letter of the law. As an organization that is supposed to be educating people, I just think it is terribly wrong and a grave injustice,” Buchel said.
While McNamara believes that originally the rules specifically regarding transfers were created to create fair teams and prevent athletically motivated transfers, they now end up doing more harm than good.
“A lot of those types of rules come from the fact that you don’t want kids to transfer,” McNamara said. “The problem that I see is that you end up catching a lot of small fish, and the big fish may know how to circumvent those rules anyway, so you end up harming a player like Lauren, who I don’t think had any genuine intention to coach shop.”
While Etnyre was very upset with the ruling, she was still happy to be a member of the Don family for a year and she is continuing to play water polo on her travel team, Diablo Water Polo.
“It’s been really hard to sit on the sidelines all season and not play a single game my senior year,” Etnyre said. “However, the experiences I’ve had, from the amazing coaching staff to the friendships I’ve developed with all of my team are much better than anything I experienced in my three years prior to transferring to Acalanes.”