Biggest impact on 2021 high school playoffs? Club sports

Early upsets are usually the biggest factors in how high school state tournaments play out..  But some of this year’s early departures in the winter sports playoffs have nothing to do with the results of the games — but have had a huge impact, nonetheless.

The Casteel High School girls’ basketball team won its first-round game against Paradise Valley HS in 5A playoffs, and the Cortez HS boys’ soccer team upset Flagstaff HS to win its opening game in 4A.

But neither team will advance to the second round.  Both were forced to forfeit their first-round wins.

The reason?  Both teams were found to be in violation of Arizona Interscholastic Association rules that restrict the interference of club programs.

In Casteel’s case, head coach Daniel Trageser was flagged for breaking the AIA rule regarding prior contact with a club player, stemming from time he spent working on club team tryouts while serving as the club’s executive director during the beginning days of the COVID shutdown when he was unable to work with his school team.

With Cortez, the violation involved a player who had competed in a club match, which runs afoul of the AIA bylaw that prohibits school players from competing in club competition during the regular high school season.

Both forfeitures are significant because they involve teams that were legitimate contenders for a state title.  In fact, Queen Creek’s Casteel finished the regular season undefeated (16-0) and were a favorite to win the school’s first state title in girls’ basketball.  The Colts were No. 1 in The Arizona Republic‘s Super 10 rankings, which includes teams from across all divisions.

Cortez, also nicknamed the Colts, wasn’t held in such high esteem, but was capable of going all the way also.  This is a boys’ soccer program that has won three state titles over the past decade and played for another title twice in the last five years.

The west Phoenix school finished the regular season 8-5-1 with eight wins and had momentum going into the playoffs following a 5-0 rout of Cactus HS.  Their eight wins on the COVID-shortened season earned them a No. 10 seed in the state tourney, but their 2-1 upset of No. 7 Flagstaff showed they had the potential to go deeper into the playoffs.

There’s no argument that the rules regarding club interference in high school sports need to have teeth or they won’t be obeyed.  That’s easy to understand, and should be the case.

But isn’t it a shame that the AIA couldn’t figure out a way to keep from penalizing all of those players who became collateral damage?  They weren’t the ones who broke the rules, but they are the ones suffering the consequences.

There has to be a better way to handle this problem.  A way that doesn’t harm innocent bystanders.