A dark sky rested over Frank Meyer Field as the Calaveras High School football team practiced Wednesday afternoon in preparation for Friday night’s playoff game against the Ripon Christian Knights. The linemen were in the corner of the end zone going over blocking techniques and the running backs were by the sideline doing agility drills.
As practice continued, Calaveras athletic director Mike Koepp and principal Michael Tambini walked down the stairs leading to the field and headed in the direction of first-year head coach Doug Clark.
The three met near the 25-yard line and had a quick conversation. Koepp and Tambini left Clark, who blew his whistle and instructed his players to take a knee on the goal line. Clark stood before his co-Mother Lode League champion team and had to deliver the worst possible news.
As a result of an ineligible player taking part in the Nov. 8 playoff game against Western Sierra, Calaveras has been forced to forfeit Friday’s game against Ripon Christian and the season was officially over.
“This was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life,” Clark said. “I’ve had a pretty fortunate life where I haven’t had a lot of tragedies, so this is probably one of the biggest blows that I’ve had in my life.”
After Clark delivered the news, the assistant coaches spoke to the team. With all the words said from coaches, the players shared hugs and shed tears. The heartbreak and disappointment were on full display.
“It just doesn’t feel real,” Calaveras senior quarterback Nolan Dart said with tears in his eyes.
According to Koepp, administrative and clerical issues regarding a transfer of a freshman player at the end of the 2019 school year transpired and the proper paperwork was not filled out, such as a box not being checked. The player, who is now a sophomore, played the entire season on the JV team and was brought up to the varsity squad for the playoffs. Because of the transfer issues, he technically was not allowed to play in a varsity game.
“We didn’t to our job with paperwork in regards to a kid,” Koepp said. “He got lost in the shuffle. We uphold that standard year in and year out and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t get it done and the kid shouldn’t have been eligible to play on the varsity team.”
Unfortunately for the Calaveras coaching staff, they were unaware of that fact. As a result of Calaveras blowing out Western Sierra, the sophomore player got to play late in the fourth quarter with a running clock, which is when the violation occurred.
“I did not know,” Clark said about the player not being eligible to play in a varsity game. “I’m not going to sit here and try to pass blame to anybody. It’s a technical issue that slipped through the cracks. There are probably multiple things you could look at, starting with me. I’m the head football coach and I should have done a better job and I didn’t. But, I did not know that he was a transfer kid.”
When Koepp heard of the issue, he self-reported the incident to the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section and hoped that by doing the right thing and pleading his case, that the section would be lenient in its decision.
“For the integrity for what our program and school stands for, we self-reported it to the section and told them exactly what had happened,” Tambini said. “We provided all the paperwork they asked for and they made a decision based off of that.”
But even with all the necessary paperwork, according to Will DeBoard, the Assistant Commissioner of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section, because of section bylaws, there was nothing he could do.
“It’s an unfortunate situation for everybody involved,” DeBoard said. “There are definitely no winners here whatsoever. Calaveras played an ineligible player. It really looks like it was a complete mistake, but unfortunately, there isn’t much leeway in our bylaws for something other than a forfeit to happen there.”
The only chance that Calaveras had was to make an appeal to an executive committee in hopes that its unblemished record when it comes to its code of conduct would be enough to sway their decision. That wasn’t the case, as the committee voted unanimously to uphold the forfeit.
“This is a school in very good standing who has never done anything wrong,” DeBoard said. “Ultimately, they (the executive committee) voted to uphold the bylaw and that’s kind of where we are at. It’s not good. It’s not good for Calaveras. It’s not good for Ripon Christian and it’s not good for us.”
With nothing else to be done, the Calaveras players and coaches had to accept the harsh reality that their season came to an end on a Wednesday afternoon and not under the Friday night lights of the playoffs.
“All I can think about is me and my boys; my seniors,” Dart said. “We’ve been playing since we were eight years old. So, for it to end just one day at practice for probably the rest of our lives, it’s just inconsiderate and it hurts really bad.”
Clark added, “My heart just goes out to them, especially to those seniors. It’s one thing to go out there and lose a game ... it was just hard. My heart goes out to all the players, the parents and the community. I won’t be able to sleep for a long time for how heartbroken I am.”
Clark and the Calaveras administration know that rules are in place for a reason. But for Clark, he would prefer that the hammer come down on him, rather than on a group of teenagers.
“If they want to hold me accountable, then punish me,” he said. “Not one player did one thing wrong and that’s who you are punishing. I don’t care what system has been in place and what rules and bylaws are there. I don’t care. But, figure out a different punishment than to punish the players on the team who did not one thing wrong. Punish someone else and start with me. But, it’s not a fair system. It’s just not right. I don’t think it’s fair and I never will.”