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Two members of Vashon High School's varsity basketball team were benched in the past two weeks, pending a Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) investigation of their eligibility.
Ameche Baldwin, a six-foot-three junior who was expected to play guard-forward for the Wolverines, enrolled at Vashon this past August. Hannibal High School principal Darin Powell says Baldwin started as a sophomore for the Pirates last year.
Marcel Taylor-Smith, a six-foot-six forward, also enrolled as a junior at Vashon this past August. He netted 53 points and pulled down 42 rebounds for Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, a Vashon rival in St. Louis' Public High League (PHL), last year.
"Some paperwork has come to light that shows their moves [into Vashon's mandated attendance district] have been questioned," says Vashon basketball coach Anthony Bonner. "They have not and will not dress out on the varsity basketball team until the issues are resolved."
Bonner says the two benched Wolverines continue to practice with the team. He says he does not know the details of the allegations that Hannibal and Career Academy have made to Vashon and MSHSAA.
Hannibal High principal Darin Powell confirms that the MSHSAA will investigate the possibility that Baldwin was improperly recruited to transfer to Vashon but declines to elaborate.
Martin Jenkins, athletic director at Career Academy, says he cannot discuss any paperwork concerning Taylor-Smith's transfer owing to privacy laws.
Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of the Columbia-based MSHSAA, would neither confirm nor deny that any investigations are underway.
The investigation into Baldwin's eligibility was initiated late last month when the MSHSAA received paperwork from Hannibal alleging that "undue influence" i.e. recruiting factored in Baldwin's transfer to Vashon, according to a district official with the St. Louis Public Schools who is familiar with details of the probe. According to the employee, who is not authorized to release individual student information and did not want his or her name published, the allegations were made on MSHSAA's "standard transfer" form, a document both the "sending" and "receiving" schools must complete when a student and his or her parents move their permanent residence into a new school district.
According to MSHSAA bylaws, the sending school (in this case Hannibal) must verify that the family has made a bona fide move that was not motivated by "athletic reasons" or recruiting. A student who completes a standard transfer under either of those circumstances may be ruled ineligible for 365 days.
MSHSAA Bylaw 216.0 states, "What constitutes undue influence shall be determined on a case-by-case basis." The regulation cites seven scenarios that could qualify as recruiting, including offers of monetary remuneration, tuition waivers and school privileges not normally granted to other students. "Any inducement to get a parent, guardian or student to change residence for interscholastic activities purposes" could also be considered undue influence, according to Bylaw 216.0, as could "the contacting of a student(s) in another school by any person or group connected, directly or indirectly, with a member school...and attempting to persuade or induce that student(s), primarily for interscholastic activities purposes, to attend the inducer's school."
Eight investigative committees at MSHSAA look into recruiting allegations throughout the state. They interview numerous parties, including the student, and compile a report for the executive director. Based on the facts presented, Urhahn rules on the student's eligibility. A student has the right to appeal the executive director's verdict to the MSHSAA board, and the entire process may take anywhere from two to six months.
How hard is it to prove recruiting charges?
"It's not real easy," says Urhahn. "I served on an investigative committee for three years. You go out and try to find as much information as you can, but sometimes it's difficult to find anything to substantiate the allegations. Sometimes it's not: The people being interviewed will tell you, 'Yeah, so-and-so talked to me, and this is what happened.' It just depends on the situation."
Vashon athletic director Keith Northway says he does not consider the boys' basketball roster finalized, in light of last month's publication of a Riverfront Times investigation into the residency of numerous Wolverines who played under Floyd Irons, the longtime coach who was relieved of his duties in July. (See Kristen Hinman's November 2 feature "Basketball by the Book," and a November 16 follow-up.)
Riverfront Times reported that Alburey Doss, currently a senior, resides with his mother and grandparents in Northwoods far outside Vashon's attendance boundaries though school-district data as of October listed his residency on Palm Place, next door to St. Louis alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. and within Vashon's mandated attendance area. Doss scored 126 points and pulled down 60 rebounds in 26 games last year.
The RFT also discovered that Derron Hobbs, now a junior, lives with his family on North Kingshighway, north of Interstate 70, outside Vashon's district. School-district data as of October indicated Hobbs lived within Vashon's boundaries, on Destrehan Street. Hobbs' aunt, Khalita Hobbs, lives at that address.
Also in question were the residences of current seniors Donald Davis Jr. and sophomore Justin Keener, as well as the status of current senior Raymond Harrell, who, according to district data, apparently provided an address outside Vashon's boundaries when he transferred to the school in 2003.
The Wolverines (3-0) recently began their first season under Anthony Bonner, Vashon class of '86, who was hired in October to replace Irons. The team's second PHL game is slated for tonight, December 14, against Metro at Soldan.
Northway declined to release the names of any students whose status is under scrutiny. But the athletic director says Vashon has dispatched its social worker to conduct home visits with basketball players in order to verify their addresses and living situations. One home visit has been completed so far, Northway says. "We are earnestly checking on all current players to make sure they're where they're supposed to be," he adds.
Northway says he has implemented expanded academic eligibility guidelines for all student athletes. "Before the rule was just: 'Hey, are you attending school?' Now you have to be here 70 percent of the time, period. If you're not here 70 percent, you won't be playing."
Coaches generally keep tabs on their players' academic standing and report problems to the athletic director (or principal, in smaller schools), who is ultimately responsible for certifying eligibility. Any games in which ineligible players participate must be forfeited, according to MSHSAA bylaws.
This season the Public High League is taking extra steps to ensure that all its athletic directors understand the MSHSAA rulebook. On December 6, the PHL and the MSHSAA held a joint seminar on eligibility in St. Louis for all PHL athletic directors.
"We're trying to get this cleaned up," says PHL director Dave Cook. "I don't want us to have any ineligible players."
A coach in the Suburban North Conference says that if Vashon's roster does not change, certain players might come under the microscope come tournament time in March. "Nobody is gonna say anything to MSHSAA until close to playoff time," the coach predicts. "That's just the nature of competition."