The Kearney High School boys' basketball team laid claim to a single 1961 state trophy when it faced off against a nine-time title holder from St. Louis at the 2004 Class 4 championship game in Columbia. That team, the St. Louis Public High League's legendary Vashon Wolverines, was little known to Kearney, a football-centric school of 1,000 students located outside Kansas City in Clay County. But to the surprise of many, the east-west foes fought a nail-biter of a game.
Vashon took home the trophy. Now Kearney wants it.
Kearney Athletic Director Herb Webster has asked the Missouri State High School Activities Association to investigate whether any Wolverines on the 2003-04 roster violated the state agency's residency rule, which requires that students of a neighborhood school such as Vashon reside with their parents within geographic attendance boundaries set by the district. The Columbia-based MSHSAA is the nonprofit organization that serves as the governing body for high school athletics.
MSHSAA Executive Director Kerwin Urhahn confirms that the probe is in a preliminary stage and that it will encompass "four or five years'" worth of Vashon's rosters. Last week, Urhahn directed the school to furnish the MSHSAA with findings of an internal investigation. The MSHSAA has not dispatched its local investigative committee, Urhahn says, because the Kearney High School allegations do not include charges of "undue influence" (i.e., recruiting) or suggest that certain Wolverines may have enrolled at Vashon for athletic reasons, both of which are MSHSAA violations. Urhahn says his staff will examine Vashon's conclusions, a process that he expects will take several months.
According to MSHSAA bylaw 830.0, "Games in which an ineligible player plays shall be forfeited."
But, Urhahn says, "There's no way to say what would happen if we do find violations."
Herb Webster says he requested the inquiry on November 28, not long after reading "Basketball by the Book," which detailed the results of a three-month Riverfront Times investigation into Vashon rosters over the past decade. The story revealed that the school appeared to have fielded teams with at least three and sometimes as many as ten ineligible players every season dating back to the 1998-99 school year.
In assembling the story, the Riverfront Times analyzed rosters, MSHSAA files, public records and data obtained from the St. Louis Public Schools, interviewed state and school officials and visited homes at addresses that players reported to the district as their residences.
After the story was published, the MSHSAA issued an unsigned statement dismissing the paper's findings as "innuendos and rumors." Spokesman Rick Kindhart said at the time that the agency would not launch any investigation of Vashon unless it received a formal complaint.
The RFT investigation found that seven players apparently ran afoul of MSHSAA rules in the season cited in the Kearney complaint. Webster says he is specifically interested in the residency of ex-Wolverines Dwayne Polk, Curtis Muse, DeAlan Hicks and James Washington, all of whom scored points in the championship game.
According to interviews conducted by the Riverfront Times, Muse, Hicks and Washington resided with family or friends inside Vashon's attendance boundaries. But their parents lived outside the boundaries, a seemingly straightforward violation of MSHSAA regulations.
In an October interview, Polk, now a junior at Saint Louis University and a guard for the Billikens basketball team, told the Riverfront Times that he couldn't remember ever having lived at the 25th Street address (inside Vashon's attendance district) he supplied to the high school.
In the 2003-04 postseason, it was Polk who "stood tall when it counted," as a Post-Dispatch headline put it. At halftime of the championship tilt, the Wolverines trailed Kearney by nine points; Polk nailed eight of eleven baskets in the third quarter; his team went on to win 68-55.
"We remember him very much in that game," Webster says ruefully. "He hurt us."
The Kearney AD says that if any violations are uncovered, Vashon "should forfeit the state championship game."
Says Urhahn: "That would be a decision that would come from our board of directors."
Last month Urhahn handed down two executive rulings in response to complaints pertaining to a pair of Wolverines new to the roster this season: Marcel Taylor-Smith and Ameche Baldwin. After their respective transfers from Career Academy and Hannibal High School prompted inquiries to the MSHSAA, the executive director declared the two players ineligible. They'd played two games apiece.
"Thank God we stopped playing them," says Vashon Athletic Director Keith Northway, alluding to the fact that the school had benched the players, pending resolution of the complaints. "Those two games were out of state, so they're not affecting us in any way [in the postseason]. The worst that could happen is, the MSHSAA could take those two games away from us."
A third player scratched from Vashon's roster this season was junior Derron Hobbs. The RFT's investigation found that Hobbs resided with his family outside Vashon's boundaries on North Kingshighway. Last month he transferred to Gateway High, a magnet school.
It was Vashon's loss, says coach Anthony Bonner.
"Derron Hobbs is a special player. He's left-handed. He can shoot the ball. He's fast. But in our system, it was more beneficial for us to have him come off the bench than start early in the year. If he was still here, at this point in the year, he'd probably be starting. I guess he was uncomfortable with the overall change in leadership."
Bonner, who replaced longtime Wolverines coach Floyd Irons last summer, says the year did not lack tumult or surprises.
"There's still a barrier," Bonner says. "There's still outside influences and preconceived notions that have been implanted in these kids about me."
To combat the negativity, Bonner says, he tries "to be very transparent and vulnerable to them, so they can see I care more than about just wins and losses." He continues, "We've had some personal outings together, from going to eat to going to church to just wasting time."
Bonner's Wolverines finished the regular season as PHL champs and Class 5, District 3 title holders. Going into last Wednesday's sectional playoff against Parkway South, Vashon boasted a record of 19-6 overall. But for the first time in many years, fans of "the V" won't be in the stands when the state championship game gets under way in Columbia Saturday night. Parkway edged out Vashon by a single point in overtime: 59-58.
At tournament time, neither Bonner nor Northway was concerned that opponents would file complaints about their players' residency with the MSHSAA. They and district officials maintain that the roster was vetted and that every student was eligible.
Kearney's Webster expressed surprise that his was the only school to date to have asked the MSHSAA to take a closer look at Vashon's past rosters. "You mean nobody in St. Louis has filed anything?"
Click the links below to read the previous three parts of Kristen Hinman's "Basketball by the Book" series.