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TODAY: AAA football championship postponed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's AAA football championship has been postponed until litigation can be resolved over the suspension of several South Charleston players.

The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission put out a news release this morning saying the organization had decided to delay the game.

"This is a very unfortunate and unique situation," said Gary Ray, executive director of the SSAC. 

"Our hope is to settle the Class AAA football championship on the field of competition.  We have directed our attorney to do all that he can to expedite a fair and final resolution of this matter."

This weekend's AA and A championships are expected to continue as scheduled in Wheeling. 

"At this time no date has been established to resume the Class AAA game," according to the SSAC's announcement. "However, because of concerns about weather and the beginning of the winter sports seasons, we are hopeful an expedient resolution will be forthcoming. 

On Tuesday, Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster decided to allow four suspended South Charleston players to compete in Saturday's Class AAA state high school championship football game against Martinsburg High.

And earlier Tuesday, Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht granted Brooke County Schools' motion seeking a temporary restraining order to delay the AAA title game until all legal matters are resolved.

A brawl broke out in the final seconds of the Nov. 19 Hurricane/South Charleston  quarterfinal game. A Hurricane player punched a South Charleston player after South Charleston intercepted a pass with 14.4 seconds left in the game.

The SSAC eventually suspended five players from South Charleston and four from Hurricane. The suspensions presumably required the South Charleston players to sit out the Brooke game.

However, Charleston attorney Ben Salango filed a suit in Kanawha Circuit Court last week to fight the suspensions issued to South Charleston players Tyler Harris, Pierria Henry, Emerson Gagnon and Trevond Reese.

Salango contended the four players' suspensions should be lifted since they were suspended according to a special report game officials filed well after the game ended and that was not in keeping with the SSAC's rules.

Webster granted those players a temporary injunction last Tuesday, allowing them to play against Brooke.

South Charleston beat Brooke 29-28 in this past Saturday's Class AAA semifinal game at University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field.

Webster conducted a hearing Monday to consider issuing another injunction that would allow the South Charleston players to participate in this coming Saturday's championship game. At the end of the nearly four-hour hearing, Webster said she would issue a written opinion by the end of business Tuesday.

William Wooton, lawyer for the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, argued in court Monday that game officials' jurisdiction extends until their official duties are complete.

Webster ultimately disagreed with Wooton.

"The WVSSAC's power to suspend a player is limited to the ejection call made by the official on the field," she wrote in her decision.

"Once the officials' jurisdiction has ended through the referee's declaration, any subsequent suspensions are purely within the province of that school's principal," the decision goes on to state.

"Any ejection made by the officials after a game is without jurisdiction and intrudes into the authority specifically delegated to the principal."

Webster granted the South Charleston players a preliminary injunction Tuesday evening, at least temporarily nullifying the suspensions and clearing them to play in the championship game.

"The Court orders that Plaintiffs Tyler Harris, Pierria Henry, Trevond Reese, and Emerson Gagnon shall remain eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics until further order of the Court," Webster's decision says.

"At the end of the game, the officials announced the ejection of players No. 1 and 15. Then, well after the game had ended and after the officials' jurisdiction had expired, the officials ejected Plaintiffs from the game," Webster wrote.

"In doing so, the officials. . .violated the rules they were trained to follow, and in turn, the WVSSAC abused the authority granted to them," the decision continued.

Game officials testified in court Monday that the officiating crew was ordered to leave the playing field by the Charleston Police Department after South Charleston Coach John Messinger and Hurricane Coach Willis May agreed to end the game with 14 seconds left on the clock.

Salango said he's pleased with Webster's ruling.

"I'm confident Judge Webster reached the right decision. . .and hopefully that will be the end of it," he said.

But Recht's decision seems to indicate the legal battle isn't over yet.

According to the Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper, Recht granted a temporary restraining order just after 4:30 p.m. that prevents the game - originally set for noon Saturday at Wheeling Island Stadium - from taking place any time in the next 10 days.

Recht said he does reserve the right to lift the order at any time, meaning the game could take place this weekend as scheduled, the paper reports.

His decision means Brooke High School still could find itself playing for a state title if the high court hears - and grants - an appeal.

After hearing of Webster's ruling, Recht said it has "no immediate effect" on his order to delay the game. He said his order would remain in place unless he granted a motion to dissolve the restraining order or the 10-day period expires with no motion to extend it.

Recht said his order was intended to delay the game until a "final order" is reached in the Kanawha County matter; however, he said Webster's declaration that the athletes are eligible "until further order of the court" raises the question of whether her decision is, in fact, a "final order."

Brooke County Assistant Prosecutor David Cross, who is representing the school board, said it now is up to the SSAC to file an appeal with the Supreme Court. He said he would be "flabbergasted" if that body chose not to do so.

"There's no reason for them to change their direction now," Cross said.

During the hearing in Wheeling, Recht said he granted the injunction because allowing the game to take place before all legal avenues are exhausted "could result - or would result - in irreparable harm to the Brooke County Board of Education."

Recht also believes Brooke school officials should have been heard during court proceedings in Charleston on Monday. Webster dismissed Cross' motion to intervene on behalf of the Brooke school board.  

Recht called that decision "unfortunate."

The Brooke County board had filed a lawsuit against the SSAC earlier Tuesday afternoon requesting the temporary restraining order that would postpone Saturday's game.

The suit also asked the court to prohibit the SSAC from canceling the championship game altogether, suggesting that South Charleston may have to forfeit the game against Brooke, allowing Brooke to play in the championship game against Martinsburg.

John Messinger, head football coach at South Charleston High, said Tuesday evening that he was unclear what the court rulings mean for Saturday's game.

"It's my understanding that the Supreme Court does not reconvene until January and probably will not reconvene to hear a judgment on a football game.

"Maybe, just maybe, this thing will get settled in the next couple days and we'll go play some football. It's not over till it's over, and it's over when the clock reads all zeroes on Wheeling Island," he said.

Messinger also criticized Brooke High for suing.

"I just thought, 'What a tragedy that somebody was beaten fair and square - and the judge's ruling says that - on a football field, and they just won't accept that they lost.' I'll leave it at that," he said.

"Sure, we were involved in a tragic episode with a team whose team also doesn't teach that behavior. At the end of the day, an officiating crew got it wrong, and who suffered? Forty-two of the finest kids you're ever going to know," he continued.

The SSAC's Ray said the commission would lose revenue if the championship game were postponed, but he added, "We can't let that dictate our decision."

"We have to look at what's in the best interests of our schools and the kids. All the kids," he said. "Finances haven't been an issue."

Daily Mail writers Derek Taylor and Ashley Craig and Ian Hicks of the Wheeling Intelligencer also contributed to this report.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com.


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