BY JEFF FALK
When Elco looks at Hayley Witmer, it sees black and white. The way Lebanon Catholic views Witmer’s case is clouded with grays.
But speak to Witmer personally and one can sense the bright and brilliant colors that emanate from her personality.
Elco and Lebanon Catholic, two local schools with long-standing traditions of consideration and cooperation, are at odds over Witmer, and what she represents. At the heart of the issue are transferring – in this instance from a public school to a private school – and athletic eligibility.
Witmer is a member of the Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball program, who after transferring in from Elco in October, has been denied one year of athletic eligibility. That was the decision recently rendered by Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and District Three committees, after Elco athletic director Doug Bohannon and other administrators wouldn’t ‘sign off’ on Witmer’s right to compete in interscholastic athletics.
At the two hearings, the District Three and PIAA committees each voted unanimously – 5-0 and 20-0 – to deny Witmer’s and Lebanon Catholic’s request for the athletic ban to be lifted. Reportedly the unanimous votes resulted from ‘testimony’ acquired by Elco girls’ basketball coach Ashli Shay from Witmer, during a private meeting about Witmer’s motivation for transferring.
Though transferring for athletic purposes has become an accepted behavior in today’s scholastic sports society, the PIAA does have regulations on the books prohibiting such movements. While Elco questioned Witmer’s motives, it has been suggested that had Witmer not been as forthright in her meeting with Shay or during the transfer process, she would be competing on the basketball floor for the Beavers as we speak.
Despite the rulings, Witmer remains very much a part of Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball program – one which features only six players on the varsity this season – practicing, attending games and rooting from the bench.
“All of it seems unfair,” said Witmer. “As an athlete I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. It doesn’t seem like my happiness or what I want matters. The only one losing in this situation is me. It doesn’t affect Elco, the District Three committee or the state.
“For me, it was hard to hear,” Witmer added. “I’ve grown up playing basketball. It was like a part of my life was being taken away. It was heart-breaking.”
“I could not believe we didn’t win the first hearing and I was stunned we didn’t win the second hearing,” said Lebanon Catholic girls’ basketball coach Patti Hower. “At no point did Elco say that Hayley Witmer said, ‘I want to go to Lebanon Catholic to play basketball’. If this was a court of law, we would’ve won.
“Hayley testified at the hearings and our principal, our advancement director, our athletic director, Hayley’s parents and our lawyer were also there,” Hower continued. “Each school was allowed to present it’s side and everything Elco brought up was based on Hayley’s conversation with Coach Shay. I’m under the impression they didn’t listen to anything we said. Coach Shay told Hayley, ‘if you’re even thinking about transferring, don’t come out for my team.'”
Witmer’s ban from sports will last an entire 12-month period, so she will not be permitted to compete in softball this spring or girls’ volleyball next fall. Witmer can play basketball for the Beavers next winter.
“It’s extremely hard,” said Witmer. “At practice we’re continually going over plays. Because we only have six players it’s hard for me to see my team struggling, and I can’t do anything to help. My team is losing out too.
“I’ve always played sports,” Witmer continued. “Sports have always been in my life. When you’re participating, it’s all about the high school experience. And I’ll never get it back.”
“She’s a kid. She’s 17,” said Hower. “She respected her coach. The lesson learned here is that if you want to transfer, lie.
“Every mother wants their child to be happy,” continued Hower. “I feel bad for Hayley because she’s going to miss out on an entire year. She’s never going to get that year back. Obviously she would help us number-wise.”
“First of all, I’m going to say ‘no comment’ because it was a closed hearing requested by Lebanon Catholic,” said Bohannon. “But I will say this, that there is a process when a student/athlete transfers, and both schools have to follow the process. We followed the process when a student-athlete transfers.”
Bohannon would not comment further about the case, even declining to answer general questions about Elco’s policy on transferring. Bohannon declined to provide an opinion on the severity of the PIAA’s penalty for Witmer, his personal beliefs on the importance of participating in inter-scholastic athletics, how often similar incidents have happened at Elco in the past, whether or not the Witmer case could serve as a precedence or a deterrent for future transfers, whether or not he believes that Lebanon Catholic recruits or even comment about the general role that athletics play in a student’s education.
“I think I was denied because it was a personal vendetta by the Elco athletic director,” said Witmer. “It almost seemed like when I spoke (at the hearings), they (the committee members) over looked everything I said. It seemed like going into the first meeting that they already had their minds made up.
“One of the things I found out was when I sat down with Coach Shay for a meeting, it was used against me,” continued Witmer. “Her and I had a great relationship. And I never had a problem with Coach Bohannon. When I had the meeting with Coach Shay I explained to her I wanted to go to a Christian school.”
“I think it could be the kind of thing like; ‘Look what happened to Hayley Witmer when she transferred,” said Hower. “But they (Elco) kind of jerked us around from the beginning.”
Less than two years ago, there were rumblings of displeasure at Elco about then sophomore student-athlete Anthony Pletz transferring to Lebanon Catholic. Last winter, Pletz helped the Beaver boys’ basketball team capture the District Three Class A championship with a win over Greenwood at Hershey’s Giant Center.
“I feel like they’re making an example of me,” said Witmer. “I think the next person who would’ve transferred would’ve had to gone through what I went through.
“The case is over now,” Witmer continued. “But I think they acted wrongly. There were a lot of cases of kids transferring around the state, and many of them were for athletic reasons. If you’re not happy at a school, why would you want to stay?”
While Elco should be commended for the diligence with which it followed the rules in the Witmer case, it also placed those values ahead of the wants – needs? – of both Witmer and Lebanon Catholic, either knowingly or inadvertently. While there is certainly something to be said for sticking to one’s beliefs, time heals all wounds and it will be interesting to see how long the relationship between Elco and Lebanon Catholic remains strained.
Lebanon Catholic visits Elco on January 17, in a Lancaster-Lebanon Section Three-Four crossover tilt.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Mr. Bohannon,” said Hower. “What I can’t understand is why he’s picking on Hayley. I thought we were out for the best for student-athletes, not just for those at your school or those at other schools, but for all schools. For Ashli, would she want her daughters to go through this?
“To Hayley’s credit, she’s at every practice. She’s at every game,” Hower continued. “It’s going to be hard looking them (Bohannon and Shay) in the eye. They weren’t fair.”
Because of his thoroughness and commitment to following rules, Bohannon has gained a reputation for being one of the top athletic directors in the state. Also active in the Lancaster-Lebanon League, the PIAA and District Three, Bohannon was named the Pennsylvania State Athletic Directors Association’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2012.
Bohannon is currently the vice chairman of the District Three committee.
“I can’t believe they didn’t sign off on her,” said Hower of Elco. “I think Mr. Bohannon made this his personal vendetta. She (Witmer) wants to play basketball. But that’s not the sole reason she wanted to transfer.
“I don’t think any of those guys (on the hearing committees) wanted to go against their buddy,” Hower added. “Even our lawyer felt that this was pre-decided.”
“I hope to be a physical therapist, but my grades in some areas were not good,” said Witmer. “I just didn’t like Elco any more. I needed something new. I like the idea of going to a Christian school. My grades were not good and I wasn’t getting the help I needed from the teachers.
“No administrator (at Elco) ever sat me down and tried to help me,” Witmer continued. “All of it was, ‘Why are you leaving?’ Then it was like, ‘Good luck’. It was like they were taking offense to the fact that I was leaving their school.”
There are those who don’t follow rules as stringently as Bohannon does. For some, rules are guidelines, boundaries and directions designed to help shape personal interpretations of the intent of rules.
In almost every instance, flexibility and compromise are stronger than rigidity and dictating.
Given the current culture of transferring in our sports society, one can’t help but wonder how long it’s been since the PIAA took a long hard look at its position on the issue. Or at the very least, perhaps the PIAA might re-consider the severity of its punishments for ‘illegal’ transfers.
If the Witmer case could somehow provide an onus for change and reform, Witmer’s punishment would not have been doled out totally in vain. It is the only hope for extracting good from a really bad situation.
“It’s (athletics) part of being a complete person,” Hower concluded. “Obviously there’s the physical development part of it. You learn to be a team player. You learn to work hard. You learn to work toward a common goal. You get a lot of what you put into it. I think it is important to be connected to a team.”