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Mooseheart set to battle mighty IHSA: Go Big Red

Students Wal Kh(left) MangisDeng (right) computer class with Mooseheart teacher Jennifer AntonsJanuary 2011. Wal Khcross country runner who finished 24th

Students Wal Khat (left) and Mangisto Deng (right) in computer class with Mooseheart teacher Jennifer Antonson in January, 2011. Wal Khat, cross country runner who finished 24th in the IHSA Class 1A race in Peoria last month, but now stripped of that medal has been ruled ineligible for both sports. Mangisto Deng, Akim Nyang and Makur Puou have been ruled inelgible for basketball. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:47AM

When I read the headline over breakfast Tuesday morning about the IHSA going after a school for recruiting violations, I thought, here we go again ... the power hungry vipers have yet another victim in their clutches.

When I read which program they were targeting, I almost dropped my coffee mug in mid sip.

Mooseheart. The Child City. The tiny Fox Valley school for at-risk children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The athletic program that gets snickered about and pummelled in almost every sport has been found by the IHSA Masters of the Universe to be guilty of recruiting tall lanky athletes from impoverished Sudan.

“We are .500 at best every year,” says Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart of his teams. “Does that sound like some sort of powerhouse program that is recruiting players? We see a little bit of success and suddenly we are accused of not playing on a level field?”

Alas, the IHSA is doing what it does best: behaving like schoolyard bullies who like to stomp all over the other kids playing in the sandbox because, well, they can.

From the sounds of it, that includes telling big fat fibs.

Hart told me the IHSA began nosing around in March after Hinckley-Big Rock complained about going up against the too-tall athletes. When Hart directly asked the IHSA if Mooseheart was being investigated at that time, he said he was told absolutely not.

Scott said he asked that same question in June, when the IHSA continued to poke and prod; and was reassured once more there was no investigation.

And like the Little Red Hen (or was that Chicken Little?), the IHSA for a third time denied there was an investigation in written correspondence with Mooseheart in early September, Hart says.

To fib once is bad enough, he adds, but to lie three times? The Mooseheart leader didn’t answer the question, but I call that downright immoral.

Hart claims the school has “been as transparent as possible,” with the way it brought in the boys from Sudan, working with the IHSA from the get-go. “So why did they wait until the week that basketball season started to inform us we are in violation?” Hart asks. “It’s not like these boys showed up yesterday.”

Indeed they did not. Mangisto Deng, Akim Nyang and Makur Puou, along with Wal Khat, who now may lose his medal after placing in the state cross country meet, came to Mooseheart through the A-HOPE program based in Indiana in early 2011. And school officials insist all IHSA rules were followed when dealing with transfer students, including sitting out the required time before they could participate in sports.

On Tuesday, Hinckley-Big Rock denied filing an IHSA complaint against Mooseheart and insisted it’s not part of any proceedings between the two parties. In a press release, the school stated it only inquired about the A-HOPE program after learning about it at an all-conference coaches meeting that was held eight months before the start of this current basketball season, and wanted to know more about is “effect on participation in IHSA sanctioned activities. At that time, Coach and Athletic Director Bill Sambrookes was “informed by the IHSA they were aware of the situation and were currently investigating it.”

Hart — most politely — says he’s “disappointed” in how the IHSA has behaved. But its apparent from the quiet resolve in his voice that Mooseheart is ready to do battle — not to defend some powerhouse athletic program but to defend students brought to the Child City for one reason: to be given a good education in a safe environment.

“These boys love playing the game, and now we are ripping the jerseys right off their backs and ripping the medals off their necks. They don’t understand this. They think they did something wrong,” says Hart. “No matter what their skin color, white brown or black, they are brothers ... they are part of something.”

And isn’t that what high school sports is supposed to be about?

Of course, every organization needs rules. Unfortunately, I’ve sat in enough high school bleachers and followed enough prep sports over the years to see how the IHSA tends to create, interpret and enforce those rules.

Mooseheart won the first round with the schoolyard bullies on Tuesday when a Kane County judge ruled the young athletes could play through the weekend. But Hart is “more than eager” for Monday to come, when the school presents its case in front of the IHSA board.

Mooseheart knows how to fight for its kids. Then again, look at who the Red Ramblers are taking on.

Talk about an unlevel playing field.

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