Gators win—twice: Playoff victory over Bluffton follows successful courtroom appeal
GOOSE CREEK — Black and gold banners whipped in the wind on a brisk autumn night perfect for hot chocolate and football. The marching band hit all the notes as it played the school’s fight song.
Goose Creek will appear before the South Carolina High School League’s Executive Committee at 2 p.m. Monday in Columbia. The High School League was ordered by Circuit Judge Roger Young to reconsider the eligibility requirements it used when banning the Gators from the playoffs. He said the hearing must be open and the committee’s decision must be made in writing.
If Goose Creek wins its appeal Monday, the team will play in Friday’s state semifinal game. If Goose Creek loses the appeal, Bluffton will advance in the playoffs.
The crowd of more than 7,000 seemed more spirited than usual as the pride of Goose Creek — the undefeated and nationally ranked Gators — won their 26th straight game Friday night, a 35-25 victory over Bluffton in the second round of the Division II-AAAA football playoffs.
For Goose Creek, it was a game that almost didn’t happen.
The Gators were banned from the playoffs by the South Carolina High School League earlier in the week for using an ineligible player, but they received a last-minute reprieve Friday when Circuit Judge Roger Young issued a temporary restraining order allowing the Gators to play.
“It was a great day,” said Olythia Ford, mother of senior running back Rico Blanding. “I saw the community come together. We have before, but not like this.”
The victory over Bluffton moved the Gators a step closer to their second straight state championship, but it doesn’t guarantee Goose Creek a spot in next week’s state semifinals.
In his ruling Friday afternoon, Young said that if on Monday the High School League stands by its original decision, then Goose Creek should be disqualified from the playoffs. If that happens, Bluffton will advance.
A large group of Goose Creek supporters jammed the Berkeley County Courthouse for Friday’s hearing. The crowd erupted in celebration, chanting “Goose Creek Gators” after Young announced his decision.
Friday night’s game was a welcome break from a tension-filled week in Goose Creek.
On Monday, Goose Creek Principal Jimmy Huskey self-reported the Gators to the High School League for using an ineligible player after he saw an updated high school transcript for the player. The transcript was different from the one the school had at the start of the school year.
The updated version showed that the student, whose name has not been released, had been credited with high school classes four years ago at Woodmont High School, located near Greenville.
On Tuesday, High School League Commissioner Jerome Singleton banned the Gators from the playoffs and made them forfeit 10 games because the student had either dressed or played in them.
On Wednesday, the High School League Executive Committee heard Goose Creek’s appeal, and the committee affirmed Singleton’s ruling.
On Thursday, Goose Creek officials discovered that the student, a foster child with special needs, has attended seven schools, including three high schools.
They also learned that he wasn’t at Woodmont High his freshman year in 2008. He was actually incarcerated at a facility called Generations Home in Simpsonville, and was not allowed to leave the premises. The classes credited to Woodmont were actually taken at the Generations Home.
Attorneys Ken Harrell and Chris McCool represented Goose Creek in court Friday, at no cost to the school.
The lawyers explained that the student never left the facility and never stepped foot on the Woodmont campus. A student has to be assigned to the school in the vicinity of his home, and Woodmont was the closest to where the student lived.
“We talked to officials at Generations Home and Woodmont High School, and they confirmed he never stepped on their campus,” Huskey said.
Young pointed out that the High School League’s rule states that a student must enroll and attend a high school to be considered a student of the school.
“There must be actual matriculation and attendance at least for a day,” the judge said.
Huskey said he is confident that Goose Creek will get a fair hearing Monday.
“I guarantee it,” he said. “I think with more information out there, our chances our good.”
Young also admonished the High School League for holding Wednesday’s hearing behind closed doors, which was in violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Young said Monday’s hearing must be open.
Follow Philip M. Bowman on Twitter: @pandcphil.