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Transfers Make Them Lose It

High schools: Fresno-area team forfeits rather than play rival it says broke recruiting rules.

January 18, 2002|ERIC SONDHEIMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SELMA, Calif. — In the raisin capital of the world, a coach and his basketball team are taking a stand, which is why the gymnasium at Selma High will be dark tonight.

Selma is forfeiting rather than play San Joaquin Memorial in boys' basketball this season because it believes its Central Sequoia League rival broke transfer rules to admit two of its star players.

"They've made their choices and we're making ours," Selma Coach Randy Esraelian said. "Selma is leading the way in cleaning up high school sports. We're willing to give up a chance for the league championship in order to get this issue in the forefront."

Already, Selma refused to play Memorial in the championship game of a tournament, forcing organizers to revise the schedule. They will take losses for league games tonight and on Feb. 8.

Officials from Memorial deny recruiting allegations. An investigation concluded in September by the Central Section, the organization that governs high school competition in the Central Valley, cleared the school of any wrongdoing.

Those results aside, Esraelian, a fifth-grade teacher, said he wants to set an example for his players by shedding light on transfers who find a way to bend regulations, creating an "unlevel" playing field.

On that point, Selma, located 20 miles south of Fresno, may have already won.

The Central Section appointed a 12-member committee Wednesday for a review of transfer policies. It was sparked in part by the flap between Selma and Memorial and a recognition that current regulations might not go far enough to crack down on recruiting and transfer activities that critics say corrupt the spirit of high school sports.

Statewide, the number of high school athletes switching schools has skyrocketed in recent years, frustrating coaches, administrators and parents, and triggering calls for reform even within the California Interscholastic Federation, the state governing body for high school sports.

"The whole state is trying to tighten transfer rules," said Jim Crichlow, commissioner of the Central Section, which oversees Selma and San Joaquin Memorial. "It's the No. 1 topic of discussion."

Not all of the CIF's 10 sections keep transfer records, but many coaches and administrators seem to agree the practice has reached epidemic proportions in the City and Southern sections, which supervises high schools competition in Southern California.

In the 522-school Southern Section, there were nearly 3,800 athletic transfers--not counting moves prompted by a change in residence--from the fall of 1999 through December of last year. The 60-school City Section had 945 in the same span.

Athletes are allowed to keep their eligibility without changing residence once in their four-year high school career. Transferring for athletic purposes is not allowed, but students routinely use the 1994 state law on open enrollment to move from school to school.

Open enrollment allows students to attend schools outside their local district where there is space available. It was designed to help improve academic performance by encouraging schools to compete for top students, but critics say it has been used as a loophole by athletes who want to switch to schools where they can better showcase their athletic ability.

Jim Staunton, commissioner of the Southern Section, the CIF's largest section, estimates he and three assistant commissioners spend four hours each working day on transfer forms, calls or inquiries.

"Open enrollment has allowed a number of parents to relocate their athletes if they become dissatisfied with their local school coach," Staunton said.

Another common thread among transfers: The alleged influence of club coaches. "The rise in club programs has caused a number of coaches to advise parents on where to send their athletes," Staunton said. "I see it as a manipulation of the system."

The problem has grown so unsettling that some leagues and school districts have started to implement their own transfer restrictions, requiring athletes who change schools without moving to sit out one varsity season. Others have been forced into action after embarrassing incidents involving foreign-exchange students.

Artesia High had to forfeit two section titles and all victories in the 1997-98 and 1999-2000 seasons after eligibility questions were raised about players from the Dominican Republic and Iceland.

In September, the Clovis Unified School District voted to make foreign-exchange students who transfer into the district ineligible to compete at the varsity level for one year. The impetus was Charlie Rodriguez, a basketball player from the Dominican Republic who transferred to Clovis West and was found to be 19 as a sophomore. Clovis West had to forfeit 70 boys' basketball victories and two section titles in 1998-99 and 1999-2000.

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