One day after six Bigfork golfers were disqualified from the State B tournament for violating a practice rule, the coach and an administrator from the school were left wondering if the penalty was a bit excessive.
The Montana High School Association penalized the high school golfers on Tuesday for playing a round of golf at Old Works in Anaconda on Sunday, two days before their respective tournaments started in the Billings area. Bigfork sent an entire boys' team - five players - and one girl to the tourneys, which were held at Pryor Creek Golf Course in Huntley and Eaglerock in Billings.
"It's not about the coaches or the administrators or the high school association. It's about the kids," said Bigfork coach Steve Hullett, who's been coaching the sport for 28 years. "The bottom line is the kids got shafted. It was an innocent deal that got completely blown out of context."
Hullett claims the players did not practice, they simply stopped at Old Works "to break up the 460-mile trip" to Billings. One of the parents driving the Bigfork players to state suggested playing a round at the Jack Nicklaus signature course as a treat for the kids - who all paid their own way - and Hullett agreed.
"If we would've been playing Eaglerock or Pryor Creek the day before the tournament I can see that," Hullett said, "but to disqualify us for playing Old Works. That's ridiculous. My kids are really devastated."
A somber-sounding Mark Beckman, executive director of the MHSA, said he spoke with the groups involved before deciding to issue the penalty to the Bigfork players, who had already completed their opening rounds on Tuesday by the time officials found out about the violation.
"There is no practicing on Sundays," Beckman re-stated, "and anyone who practices gets the standard penalty, which is a suspension from the next game or match and a reprimand to the school."
Hullett said he was aware of the rule, but he didn't think it would apply in this instance.
"(The MHSA) said it was a practice. They said any gathering of two or more players with a coach on a Sunday, even if it's just for chalk talk, or anything, is considered a practice in their eyes," Hullett said. "There were numerous teams and kids traveling to state on Sunday and you can't tell me that golf was not talked about at some point in their drive. In my mind that's the same thing."
Bigfork athletic director Matt Porrovecchio said he wanted to reserve comment until later. He plans on sending the MHSA a letter in the hopes that an issue like this is handled differently in the future.
"I'm disappointed with how the situation played out," Porrovecchio said. "I'm looking into pursuing it further with the state."
The disqualifications were particularly upsetting because the boys' team was 10-12 strokes out of the top three, said Hullett, and in the hunt for a trophy, and sophomore Sara Keenan was only four strokes behind the girls' leader after the first round of competition.
"Sara had a realistic chance of winning an individual championship," Hullett said. "We had three kids that would have possibly been all-state."
All six players had their rounds erased when they were disqualified. The top 15 finishers in the boys' and girls' tournaments earned all-state honors.
It's not clear how meet officials found out about the violation, but Hullett thinks one of his players told a fellow competitor who in turn told their coach, who then went to the MHSA representative on site.
"It wasn't found out until the end of the day," Beckman said. "But when we made the calls to (Porrovecchio) he said ‘We did stop and golf as a team.' "
"If I would have thought there was going to be a problem we wouldn't have done it," Hullett said. "The last thing I want to do is jeopardize the kids' ability to perform."
Hullett found out about the disqualifications while he and his team dined at Outback Steakhouse in Billings.
"They had just put down a big, fat steak in front of me when I got the call," he said. "I never touched that steak. It ruined my dinner, and everybody else's."
"It was obviously a mistake, and I shouldn't have done it. I know that now," Hullett added. "But I think it isn't right. It's something that the high school association has to revisit."
"It could be looked at by the membership. It's up to them," Beckman said. "It (the Sunday rule) has been in the rules since the inception, if not close to the inception, (of the MHSA). They may take that up. It has been a rule that coaches and administrators felt was important, that we are going to have one day away from all activities. And that day was Sunday. They wanted to keep something for the family and the kids themselves."
The Bigfork players left for home Wednesday morning before the remaining golfers began their final rounds. Hullett said the school is appealing the MHSA's decision, but any changes to the rules would likely only help out in the future.
"I think it's wrong," Hullett said, "but the kids are the ones that are paying for it."
For the first time ever the Western B-C softball conference will conduct a qualifying tournament for state, and it begins Friday in Thompson Falls.
The six-team competition will send its top four finishers onto the State B-C tourney, which is May 27-29 in Billings. The Eastern B-C has been holding divisional tournaments for the last three years. Loyola Sacred Heart and Thompson Falls are the top two seeds at the Western B-C divisional and have first-round byes.
St. Ignatius, Drummond, and Deer Lodge all won play-in games on Monday to advance to this weekend's games.
Frenchtown High School has hired Mike Botsford as its new boys' basketball coach.
However, Botsford is no stranger to the Broncs. He grew up in Frenchtown and was an assistant coach at the school last season. Botsford replaces Kye Nuttall, who parted ways with the school after just one season. The Broncs went 2-18.