County court rules against Retherford
SUNBURY - Former Line Mountain state wrestling champion Zain Retherford's request to Northumberland County Court for a preliminary injunction and permanent injunction against the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), which would have allowed Retherford to wrestle this season for Benton High School, was denied Wednesday.
Northumberland County Judge Robert Sacavage denied the request after an hour-long hearing, citing that almost all of the case law regarding transfers and PIAA rulings was on the PIAA's side.
"The court feels for the plaintiff (Retherford and his parents, Allen and Sarah)," Sacavage said. "He's caught in a bind here. But this court is not permitted to act out of sympathy. I am obliged to follow case law, and the law is pretty clear that you must find that 'irreparable harm' will be caused to the plaintiff by the PIAA ruling. That's a pretty high bar to clear."
The issue of irreparable harm was central to the hearing, which was requested by the Retherfords after the PIAA voted, on an 8-1 basis last week, to uphold a ruling by the District 4 committee declaring Retherford ineligible for the sport of wrestling for the 2011-12 school year. That ruling came after Retherford, a 2010 state champion at Line Mountain, transferred to Benton last summer. Line Mountain contested Retherford's transfer on the grounds that it was "materially motivated" by sports, which is against PIAA rules. District 4 ruled Retherford ineligible to wrestle in September, and an appeal by the Retherfords to the PIAA in November sent the case back to the district, citing procedural problems.
The district again ruled Retherford ineligible, and the PIAA affirmed that decision on Dec. 8, after which Christian Lovecchio, the Retherfords' attorney, filed for an injunction.
Prior case law
Attorney Alan Boynton Jr., who represented the PIAA, cited in his brief to the court prior cases in which Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, among others, ruled
that loss of athletic eligibility, even for an entire season, does not constitute immediate and irreparable harm. Appellants in prior cases against the PIAA and other state organizations have tried to cite loss of "opportunities to gain admission and scholarships to top schools" as immediate and irreparable harm.
"This allegation is presented in almost every one of the cases identified ... and the argument has, in every one, been rejected," Boynton wrote in his brief.
It was also noted that since Retherford is a junior, he still will be eligible to wrestle as a senior.
Lovecchio acknowledged that "case law is entirely on the PIAA's side" but made what he called a 'novel' argument to the court on behalf of his client. He stated that District 4's reasoning for declaring Retherford ineligible was based almost totally on one facet of testimony - the fact that Retherford, after working out in the offseason with the Benton Tiger Wrestling Club, which is coached by Benton High wrestling coach Russ Hughes but otherwise not affiliated with the school district, decided to transfer to Benton and was "therefore following the coach. That appears to be the determining factor here."
Lovecchio also claimed that ruling was "arbitrary and capricious."
Lovecchio, who coaches soccer at Williamsport High School, argued that such a conclusion constitutes a "slippery slope" in a time when more and more athletes are competing for club programs as well as their high school teams.
"It's not like when you and I were in school," Lovecchio told Sacavage. "I coach soccer and almost every one of my players also plays on a club team. That's the direction society is leading. If you want to be successful, you have to join a club, More and more kids play one sport year round. If one of my players at Williamsport transfers to Loyalsock, can I contest it just because his club coach coaches there? That's what this seems to be saying."
Lovecchio also argued that the PIAA is allowed to make its rulings based on "minimal facts" founded in proceedings in which there is no burden of proof on either party.
Brad Cashman, PIAA executive director, was the only witness. He answered questions from Sacavage regarding the PIAA, its rules on transfers and other issues.
"Transfer cases are always difficult," Cashman testified. "It is always difficult to determine a motive. It depends primarily on what testimony schools present."
Sacavage gave the Retherfords 30 days to file another appeal, but in a post-hearing interview, Allen Retherford indicated that would be unlikely.
"We're disappointed but now we have some closure on the matter," Retherford said. "We're 10 times stronger as a family than we were. When this started, I asked the entire family a question about what we wanted to do, and we all agreed (about the move). I've specifically asked Zain if he'd rather be back at Line Mountain, and he said he'd rather be at Benton and sit out a year than be back at Line Mountain and wrestle."
Retherford is allowed to practice with the Benton team, and to play other sports. He played soccer this past fall. His father said he will also try to stay in top shape by attending other schools' wrestling practices occasionally to practice with their better wrestlers.
Some of the issues which the district committee heard at the September hearing involved Allen Retherford's dissatisfaction with the support his son received at Line Mountain, and his dissatisfaction with the coaching philosophy and style of Lon Balum, a former Line Mountain head coach who served as interim coach last season. Balum, a Line Mountain guidance counselor who has been active with the wrestling program on and off for most of the past two decades, was hired as interim coach last fall after Mike Martz, who coached Retherford to his state title the season before, resigned unexpectedly due to family reasons. Martz will be the head coach again this season, and members of the Retherford family testified at the September hearing that Zain Retherford likes Martz and considered him a friend.
Other issues included the family's access to Allen Retherford's job and Sarah Retherford's access to Bloomsburg University, where she is taking courses, and Bloomsburg Hospital, where she is being treated for a pituitary tumor which keeps her from working at the Retherford farm in Dornsife. The Retherfords also accused Line Mountain of turning a deaf ear to charges that Retherford had been bullied at the school. Campbell previously said the Retherfords never brought up the issue of bullying before the transfer, and said the allegations were without merit.