If you're going to be sneaky, the IHSAA is watching

Kaitlyn Costner, here playing for Elkhart Central in the 2019 Class 4A Northridge girls basketball sectional final, has transfered to Penn, but the IHSAA has ruled her ineligible to play varsity basketball until February 1.

If you read my columns on a regular basis, you know I give the IHSAA grief about some (many) of the decisions they make regarding athletic teams north of Carmel.

But now it's time to give them some credit.

In the past month, the IHSAA has cracked down on three high-profile programs and did so with a hammer, rather than a slap on the wrist.

First, the association suspended Culver Academy coach Mark Galloway for two games and put his program on probation for several violations, including practicing with alumni and practicing during an IHSAA dead period. This came after a recruitment violation prior to last season.

Then junior All-State candidate Katelyn Costner – who had left Elkhart Central for Penn – was denied full eligibility for the Kingsmen and must play the entire regular season for the Penn junior varsity team. She will be eligible to play varsity on Feb. 1, one year after she last played for the Blue Blazers.

Penn is appealing the decision and don't be surprised to see lawyers get involved if the appeal is denied.

Then early Monday morning, the IHSAA lowered the boom on Southport High School, coached by former South Bend Riley head coach Eric Brand.

According to a release by the IHSAA, Brand provided a tuition payment of $5,448 for Nickens Paul Lemba to play basketball at Southport. Lemba is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was planning to play basketball for Brand.

The IHSAA responded by banning Southport from the 2019-20 IHSAA state basketball tournament. The association also agreed to Southport's suspension of Brand for two games, although they did say ''this suspension falls woefully short of the expectations of the IHSAA from its voluntary member school.''

Lemba, a 6-foot-6 freshman, will also not be allowed to play basketball this season and the entire Southport athletic department has been placed on probation for an entire year.

Bobby Cox, the IHSAA commissioner, told the Indianapolis Star that Brand paying for the tuition was “as egregious of a violation of undue influence” as he has seen in his time with the IHSAA.

Boom!

The IHSAA has always faced issues like this and players have changed schools for as long as I remember.

Back in the '70s, a player named Bruce Grimm would move from Triton to Rochester to Plymouth, leading a Pilgrim team to the semistate in his senior year and making the Indiana All-Star team.

Of course, there has always been talk of the private schools in and around Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Merrillville and Lafayette recruiting athletes to put the best team on the field.

But is it becoming even more prevalent now? Is the pressure to win at the high school level reaching the point where a basketball coach actually thinks it's OK to pay the tuition of a potential player and hope no one notices?

Or is it parents and kids with visions of grandeur trying to be seen by the most college coaches to earn that elusive scholarship.

I wrote earlier this year about how many players care more about themselves now than the name on the front of their jerseys.

They see Justin Fields move from Georgia to Ohio State to become eligible immediately for a team bound to play in the College Football Playoffs. They see Jalen Hurts beaten out at Alabama and move to Oklahoma to become a Heisman Trophy candidate.

"Why not me?'' high school players are saying.

Coaches see Penny Hardaway pay to help move a superstar player to Memphis to play AAU and eventually play for him at the University of Memphis. And while the player is currently suspended by the NCAA, don't be surprised to see him back in a Memphis uniform by the end of the season.

So, was it worth it for Hardaway – a former NBA superstar with plenty of cash on hand – to spend a little over $50,000 to "help" a family.

Southport was planning to host a sectional and regional this season and Brand had a solid group of returnees for the 2019-20 season. Now the hopes of a possible sectional championship has been dashed and it's still unknown if the IHSAA would let a school ineligible for the tournament play host to tournament games.

To be blunt, it was a selfish and incredibly stupid move by Brand.

My colleague Bob Oppenheim and I have said numerous times that it's the Wild, Wild West in high school sports right now compared to earlier in our career. Back then, you could usually follow a player from their freshman year at the school, up to the final game of his or her career.

With the exception of the Costner case, Elkhart County has been fairly immune to many questionable decision as of late. Do kids sometimes pop up at different schools in the fall? Of course, but the IHSAA hasn't come calling to question those decisions.

Last season, Penn posted an unbeaten girls basketball season before falling in overtime to Crown Point in the Class 4A regional finals. Crown Point, which was also unbeaten, lost in the semistate the next week in the "north" (sorry, old habit) sectional finals to Hamilton Southeastern.

Interestingly, after it was learned that Costner was at Penn, it wasn't long before Dash Shaw, an All-State guard, showed up to play her senior season at Crown Point. Shaw averaged 24.8 points-a-game at Gary West last year and is one of the quickest players in the state.

Of course, the IHSAA doesn't have the resources that the NCAA has at its disposal to investigate every transfer or possible violation, but the last three decisions they've made prove that they're watching closely. And besides, the NCAA's record is far from stellar.

Unfortunately things like this will continue to pop up here and there, but let's hope players and coaches at least hesitate now, knowing the IHSAA is watching and waiting.

Ken Fox is the Sports Editor of the Elkhart Truth. You may reach him at kfox@elkharttruth.com or @KenFoxTruth on Twitter.

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