The Westhill High School football team, reveling in its best season in 25 years under first-year coach Frank Marcucio, was jolted Tuesday morning when it was forced to forfeit four of its five victories for using an ineligible player.
School officials learned of the violation, involving a defensive starter who is a fifth-year senior, on Monday, and Westhill athletic director Mike King reported the incident to the CIAC, the state’s governing body for high school sports, later that day.
CIAC executive director Karissa Niehoff said on Tuesday morning that it had yet to receive the official report but that the organization was taking actions as if the violation were verified.
“If I had an idea the kid was ineligible he wouldn’t have played,” Marcucio said on Tuesday.
The incident had a wide-ranging ripple effect, not just in Stamford but throughout the state. Westhill would have taken a 5-4 record into Thursday’s game with Stamford High and the chance to finish with a winning record for the first time since 1987. And the timing could not have been worse, coming exactly a week before the start of the CIAC football playoffs, which uses a point system to determine the eight qualifiers in four different divisions. The forfeiture of wins against Trumbull, Norwalk, Bridgeport Central and Danbury forced a recalibration of the standings, aiding teams that initially appeared to be longshots to earn playoff spots, while hurting others.
Talking about schools that suddenly saw the road to earning postseason berths lengthen, Niehoff said, “Your heart breaks for the kids first. It’s no fault of the student-athletes because of one school’s mistake. To have to change your mindset is devastating. Now think of the Westhill kids. Boy your heart breaks for them too.”
Marcucio said his players were more upbeat than expected at Monday’s practice. “The kids knew about it yesterday and the kids’ comment was they can’t take away what we did on the field,” Marcucio said.
Asked if he thought his team’s preparation for the Thanksgiving game with Stamford would be compromised, Marcucio said, “After yesterday’s practice, I think it helped bring the team even closer together probably. As I told the kids, I’ve preached all year that sometimes adversity comes and all you can do is smack it in the mouth and move on.”
This is the third time in the last 14 months a Westhill team has had to forfeit victories due to ineligible players. The first incident occurred in September of 2011, when the boys soccer team had three wins overturned. Four months later, the boys basketball team had a win over Bassick taken away.
King declined to discuss the latest infraction. “We don’t comment on disciplinary actions for students,” King said.
The news broke just two days before the Vikings’ game against Stamford, and the chance to finish with their first winning record since 1987, when they ended up 5-4-1. It would have been the fitting climax to a season in which the team instilled added life into the student body, as attendance soared for Saturday afternoon home contests, and the Westhill motto of “Purple Pride” became a more popular refrain.
“If anything this will make us work harder,” said Chris Soule, a team captain and the starting offensive guard and defensive tackle, about the game against the rival Black Knights. “We are kind of now playing like we have something to prove.”
The Vikings’ 41-28 win over Wilton on Nov. 10 will stand because the player involved was inactive for that game, as well as last weekend’s loss to Staples.
“He was suspended for a violation of team rules unrelated to the eligibility issue,” Marcucio said. “He probably wouldn’t have played against Stamford.”
With the state playoffs set to start on Tuesday, and the regular season ending with games Wednesday and Thursday, Niehoff said, “This is a pretty urgent situation.”
Teams that went to bed Monday night with dire hopes woke up Tuesday morning to renewed optimism because of a shifting of bonus points in the CIAC’s scoring system. Perhaps the team that benefited the most was Ridgefield, which now can qualify for a berth in the Class LL field with a win against Danbury and a victory by Fairfield Prep over West Haven.
“It’s unfortunate what happened, I feel bad for the kids,” Ridgefield coach Kevin Callahan said. “Obviously we gained from this so we feel lucky about that. It fell into our laps.”
The situation also had an impact on another of Westhill’s intra-city rivals. Trinity Catholic would have automatically qualified for the Class S Tournament with a win on Thursday at Wilton. The Crusaders are still in a strong position, but they will now need a little bit of outside help.
“It’s unfortunate any time you have forfeits or games where outcomes are not decided on the field,” said Matt Fischer, the CIAC’s director of information services, who oversees the state playoff standings. “It’s especially disheartening when you have a point system where it affects other schools.”
Marcucio was hired as the Vikings’ coach back in April, almost three years after he was fired by Bassick at the end of spring football practice.
“After what happened to me at Bassick, this is worse,” Marcucio said.