ELYRIA — When their follow-up season to the school’s first-ever berth in the National Junior College Athletic Association Tournament and best record in school history (19-10) came to a crashing halt after three games and a sudden coaching change, the Lorain County Community College men’s basketball players said little or nothing.
When LCCC officials said the reason the season was canceled was due to a lack of academically eligible players, the players stayed silent.
But after being prevented by the LCCC athletic department from appealing to the NJCAA to reinstate a year of eligibility, sophomores Greg Fite and Doug Harper said they had to speak out.
“To be honest, the reason the school gave for why the season was canceled was a lie,” said Fite, a Perry High graduate who attends classes at LCCC and said he has a 2.5 gpa. “They said we were ineligible and that’s not the case at all. We are academically eligible. When Coach (Michael) Cruz resigned, we just didn’t want to play for any other coach. We came to play for Coach Cruz, not for any other coach.
“It wasn’t even like us deciding to quit, it was more about the school and how they were treating us. Nothing that was going on seemed right to us. Everything they were saying was a lie. We felt like our athletic director (Lisa Augustine) did not have players’ best interest at heart. We just didn’t feel like it was a good situation there.”
Harper, a Brush graduate who had just transferred to LCCC after one season playing for Erie Community College, agreed.
“Their statements made it seem like we’re typical athletes that were stupid,” said Harper, who said his gpa is 2.4. “With Coach Cruz, we had mandatory study tables. It was run like a real program with a real experience of a college athlete.
“Coach Cruz had his best interest in bettering our experience. The athletic department always seemed to fight anything that he did that would help us out.”
Cruz said he resigned just as the season began “to pursue other coaching opportunities.”
Augustine, reached by phone Monday, declined comment.
“Sorry, I am unable to provide any additional information at this time,” Augustine said. “Tracy Green is the spokesperson on this matter.”
Green, LCCC’s vice president for strategic and institutional development, had originally said “only four or five” of the team’s players were academically eligible, but never said Fite or Harper were among the ineligible.
When reached Monday she said: “Unfortunately, on an individual basis, I can’t speak of who was or wasn’t eligible. I don’t have the information to answer that.”
Fite and Harper were upset with the portrayal, but were content to leave it alone. Until, they said, the players attempted to petition the NJCAA for another year of eligibility under the hardship clause. Players can’t take their case to the NJCAA without the school signing the forms, and for months LCCC has refused to do so, according to the players.
“The school has been denying our rights to appeal for our year of eligibility,” Harper said. “That’s the real reason why we’re calling (The Chronicle-Telegram). The NJCAA can award a year of hardship if circumstances fall under their criteria. We attended practices with the new coach (Marty Eggleston), and we felt it was in our best interest to transfer and get our year of eligibility back for only playing three games.
“However, LCCC has refused to give us the right to defend ourselves. We have no rights in this. We just want the NJCAA to hear our story and for LCCC to sign the paper. We’d accept NJCAA’s decision to deny us. But what we’ve looked at, we feel we have a great chance of getting our year back. They just haven’t allowed us to do that, and that’s wrong.”
According to the NJCAA, the players’ case would fall under Hardship Clause No. 2 involving “cases other than those affecting a student-athlete’s season of competition as specified in Section 8.A. These cases must show that there are circumstances beyond the student-athlete’s control which directly result in their inability to satisfy the Rules of Eligibility. The 20 percent limitation still applies to participation. All requests must receive approval from the NJCAA Office of Eligibility.”
The LCCC players participated in less than 20 percent of the team’s originally scheduled games and feel that the change of coaches and the turmoil that resulted in the cancellation of the season qualify as “circumstances beyond the student-athlete’s control.”
The players have filled out Hardship Form No. 2, but can’t submit it to the NJCAA without the signature of the head of the school’s athletic department. Green said LCCC does not plan to sign the forms because, as an institution, it believes it did not create the hardship.
“There are two different definitions for hardship,” Green said. “One is for personal injury. The second is that the hardship was created by the institution itself. Under that circumstance, we would have to admit that we created the hardship for the student. Under that guideline, we cannot say that.
“We provided adequate practice times and coaches that would be required to keep a season going for the institution. We provided them adequate options from that hardship standpoint to continue their season.”
Two of the options before Eggleston was hired were women’s coach Tony Naples also taking over the men’s program, and having a volleyball coach travel with the team and act as coach. That seems to be the one aspect the players and school agree on.
“First, they put us with the women’s basketball team, and I think the women’s coach was going to coach us as well,” Harper said. “After one practice, I think we both knew that wasn’t going to work out very well.”
Then LCCC was going to allow the team to compete in an out-of-town tournament with a volleyball coach acting as coach. The players balked at that as well.
“Me being from a basketball background, I wasn’t going to take a volleyball coach seriously,” Harper said. “It just seemed like the school didn’t care about us anymore. It wasn’t a perfect situation for us at all, so we all decided to quit.”
The players claimed they were willing to give Eggleston a chance. But Fite and Harper said they were upset that Eggleston granted an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram before he met with them to hear their side of things.
“It was disrespectful,” Harper said. “We hadn’t even met him, and he made us look dumb with his comments. Just the same, we met with him and we tried to practice with him, but we could tell it just wasn’t going to be a good fit.”
Green said it’s LCCC’s contention that its moves to find an interim coach and the hiring of Eggleston negate the argument for hardship.
“The way that I understand it is that we had offered a full season,” she said. “All efforts were made to keep things going from a season perspective.”
Fite, Harper and fellow sophomore Randy McCormick, who did not take part in the phone interview, are the three players that have remained as students at LCCC and are trying to fight for eligibility. The rest of the players transferred or are taking up their own causes.
“This was our last year of junior college eligibility if we wanted to land a scholarship to a four-year school to play basketball, which we all want to do and believe we can do,” Fite said. “Basketball is our lives. We all live and breathe this game, and we came to LCCC not only to get the chance at bettering ourselves at the game of basketball, but also bettering ourselves in the classroom to help us get that chance.
“Instead, it seems like the athletic department has turned its back on us for no reason, other than we didn’t want to play for their new coach.”
The players said Cruz apologized to them when he resigned and said he’d support whatever decisions they made — staying and finishing out the season or transferring. They said they tried to give it a go, but didn’t like how LCCC handled the situation.
Cruz supports his players’ fight for eligibility.
“If I were the athletic department, I would see no harm in signing the paper and letting your student-athletes be heard, because when I look at that paper, I think they have the right to be heard,” he said.
The players said that going to the media to state their case was the last resort before taking drastic measures, such as legal action.
“I don’t understand what the point is to not sign the letter,” Fite said. “We told her if NJCAA told us no, that would be OK. It’s just a simple signature, and (Augustine) can’t even do that. We’re not even trying to transfer during the year. We just want our year back.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.