Martinsburg (W. Va.) High School is in the midst of furious preparations for a Class AAA state title game scheduled for Saturday. They know that they're supposed to be facing off against South Charleston (W. Va.) High, but that's about all the know right now, after the championship game was delayed indefinitely because of a dispute over the eligibility of four South Charleston players who were involved in a fight earlier in the playoffs, and whether South Charleston should be forced to forfeit its semifinal victory over Brooke (W. Va.) High as a result.
According to the Associated Press, the dilemma stems from a midfield brawl that occurred in the final moments of South Charleston's quarterfinal win against Hurricane (W. Va.) High. The fight -- which you can see below -- quickly spiraled out of control into a benches-clearing brawl, and South Charleston players Tyler Harris, Pierria Henry, Emerson Gagnon and Trevand Reese were handed game ejection penalties, which usually carry with them a minimum one-game suspension. However, the players were not initially handed any suspension, leading Brooke County school officials to allege that the four players should not have been allowed to play against Brooke High, asking for a forfeit in the semifinal which would send Brooke to the state title game.
Brooke officials made their case in a petition to Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster, who then decided the four players would be eligible to play in the state title game. Yet, rather than clear the issue up, that seems to have created more confusion, setting the stage for further appeals, with the state Supreme Court a likely next destination. Because of the indeterminate nature of the final eligibility ruling, the state championship game, originally scheduled for Saturday, was postponed indefinitely on Wednesday until the matter is resolved. That decision was made to ensure that whoever wins the eventual Class AAA title game is named state champion without the prospect of an additional legal battle lingering on the horizon.
"It's frustrating obviously," Martinsburg coach Dave Walker told the Associated Press. "We're going to stay positive and try to stay focused and prepared. The problem is, we're not sure who we need to prepare for at this point.
"The last two days we've practiced for South Charleston because that's who we thought we were going to play. Nobody's playing Saturday afternoon. Right now we're just waiting to see what happens."
The delay marks the first in the modern history of any West Virginia state football championship, which moved to a "Super Six" format in 1979. While the situation has brought plenty of unwanted attention to the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, a future appointment with the state's Supreme Court -- a petition was expected to be filed Thursday morning -- wouldn't be the first for the organization. At the heart of nearly all prior legal issues has been the same driving force behind the current dilemma: a lack of an organized appeal process against SSAC suspensions.
As outlined in the Charleston Gazette, the SSAC suspended then Huntington (W. Va.) High basketball star O.J. Mayo for four games, with that case eventually leading to a state supreme court ruling that upheld the SSAC's contention it didn't need an appeals process because participation in scholastic athletics was voluntary.
The Mayo case followed a similar decision four years earlier, in which a football player from Wyoming East (W. Va.) High was suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct, but received an injunction that allowed him to continue playing until he was given a chance to appeal the suspension.
"This is a very unfortunate and unique situation," SSAC Executive Director Gary Ray told the Associated Press. "Our hope is to settle the Class AAA football championship on the field of competition.
"This is not something we'd like to see. It's a game. It's about opportunity, but at the same time it's got to be about teaching as well," he said. "Part of teaching lessons is about consequences for inappropriate behavior."
Yet none of those prior cases -- or Ray's sentiment -- help make the wait any easier for Martinsburg, which is suddenly left in complete confusion over who and when they'll play next.
"We're going to stay focused and just go back and look at things we need to work on. We're not going to let it pull us down."
Martinsburg's principal Regina Phillips, for one, is sure that the ongoing legal wrangling is only delaying the inevitable: a Bulldogs state title.
"I think they know it's just a temporary measure and that in spite of the outcome (in court), we will be in the final game, and we will win," Phillips said. "My kids are confident."