Tempe HS claims ‘dirty play’ after forfeit to Saguaro HS

The latest mess to get dropped into the lap of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state’s governing body for high school sports, is going to take some untangling.  It involves the highly unusual move by a football team to walk off the field before halftime, forfeiting a regular-season game.

By now, everyone who follows prep sports in Arizona is aware of Friday’s game between Tempe High School and Scottsdale’s Saguaro High that ended when the Tempe team boarded their bus and headed home after four of their players had been injured, and two of them taken by ambulance to the hospital.

The AIA has asked for a written report from Tempe High, outlining their position on the issue, as well as game film from both Division III schools.

Unfortunately, we aren’t talking about multiple-camera NFL-quality video that shows all the angles, as well as penetrating close-ups.

I saw some of the tape this morning at Channel 12 TV, before guesting for a segment on their local Today show to talk about the game.  Joe Dana, one of the Today hosts, told me Richard Obert at The Arizona Republic had also reviewed the tape, trying to decide whether there was ‘dirty play’ involved.

That’s the charge leveled against Saguaro High by the Tempe coach and the school’s athletic director and principal.  According to Obert, that was the assertion included in a letter from Principal Mark Yslas to the high school community, saying he felt Saguaro players were trying to injure Tempe players.

Jason Mohns, the Saguaro head coach who moved up from offensive coordinator to take over this season after John Sanders was fired, says he reviewed his game tape and didn’t see any intent to injure by his players.

Tempe High head coach, Brian Walker, told Obert he and his coaching staff felt the game had become out of control and the referees were not reacting accordingly.  One report indicates there were 14 penalties called against Saguaro for a total of 123 yards. But Tempe’s stats weren’t much better; the Buffaloes were flagged a dozen times for 82 yards.

That would indicate a game rapidly swirling down the drain.

But, to their credit, the refs called a time-out with a minute and a half left in the first half and sent both teams to their respective locker rooms to cool off.  Tempe chose not to return from the time-out, instead boarding their bus for home after conferring with the school’s athletic director.  By some accounts, they also contacted the AIA to inform someone there of their decision to forfeit the game.

The issue before the AIA, which Associate Executive Director Chuck Schmidt says will be taken up at the Oct. 15 board meeting, is whether Tempe had a valid reason for taking such drastic action.

Coach Walker, who was ejected from the game before the refs sent the teams to their locker rooms, says it’s all about safety concerns and had nothing to do with the fact that Saguaro was ahead 31-0.

As a high school coach, I’ve been there.  It’s a tough call when you’re concerned about your kids.  And it’s even more difficult these days, when parents run to lawyers whenever they feel the need to make their point with a coach.

Brian Walker may have been in a position where he really didn’t have a choice.  If he had continued to play the game as serious injuries were piling up, he could have been blamed – and potentially sued – for allowing his players to remain in a dangerous environment.

The basis for his argument, in that case, would likely hinge on whether Saguaro was playing dirty, as claimed.  Otherwise, it’s just the nature of football: injuries happen.

But they shouldn’t be helped along.

On the other hand, Walker could be seen as just looking for a way out of an embarrassing situation that was likely to get worse in the second half.  One of the injuries that required a trip to the hospital was suffered by his starting quarterback, Emanuel Gant, early in the second quarter.  There was a personal foul called on the hit.

That was after the starting wide receiver went to the sidelines with an injury in the first quarter, and before two more injuries, one while returning a kickoff and the final straw, when Terry’on Wycoff was hurt during a punt return – and became the second call for an ambulance.

At that point, Walker had already been ejected for running toward Saguaro’s sideline following Jordan Wiatr‘s injury on the kickoff return.

But the point is, Tempe already had its hands full trying to contain the two-time defending state champions and without Gant and some of the other key players who had been sidelined – not to mention the head coach – there was little hope of holding on any longer.

So the AIA has to decide whether the Tempe coaches and administration were correct in their assessment of a volatile situation that they felt had turned dangerous for their players.  Or whether they had used the safety issue as a way to avoid an ugly second half of football.

They’ve got four weeks to figure this one out.  That should be an interesting meeting in October.