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Sugar House Journal

Changing schools for sports — is it good or bad?

Jan 08, 2019 15h36 ● By Greg James

Bingham has enjoyed varying levels of success in its sports programs, none more so than football, who has won four the past 6 state championships in its classification. (Justin Adams/City Journals)

By Greg James |  [email protected] 

As Carolyn Fotu and her husband Tevita debated on where they thought their two sons should attend high school and play football they never anticipated the windfall of emotion that the decision would involve.

“Hard is an understatement,” Carolyn said. “We uprooted them from what they knew and put them in a whole new environment. The backlash that came with it made it even harder, but looking back at it now it was all worth it.”

The Fotu family broke no rules when deciding through open enrollment where their children should attend school. In fact, initially they transported them to their chosen school and eventually they moved into the school boundaries. They enrolled into Bingham as part of the open enrollment program outlined by the State School Board.

According to state code 402, a school is open for enrollment of nonresident students if enrollment level is at or below enrollment threshold. Carolyn and Tevita applied for their children to attend Bingham and were granted permission by the Jordan School District.

“It surprised us that friends were offended when we went through it. Tevita had attended Bingham’s summer workouts and gotten to know the coaches. He liked the way they ran their program. That is what sold us on Bingham,” Carolyn said.

The investment the parents made in research for the future of their children paid off. Their oldest, Malachi, was recruited and earned a football scholarship to Southern Virginia University. Sione is currently a junior and has received several college offers including the University of Utah saving the family thousands in college expenses.

“Playing sports in high school helped teach them things they can use in everyday life situations,” Carolyn said.

Scholarship offers can come to athletes no matter where they play their games. 

“We found the good players no matter what,” former Southern Utah University assistant men’s basketball coach Drew Allen said. “Honestly, where the student plays in high school means nothing. We found the kids in the off season camps and tournaments anyway. We could not come watch the high school games because we were playing at the same time. If the kid was good enough we found them no matter what.”

Some examples of students who made it despite not playing at a powerhouse school include:

Noah Togiai starred at Hunter High School as a basketball and football player. He was heavily recruited in both sports and ended up at Oregon State playing basketball for one season before later becoming a football only athlete. He has been rated by ESPN as one of the top 25 tight ends in the country and may enter the NFL draft this spring.

Hailee Skolmoski, a graduate of Riverton High School, signed and played soccer at the University of Utah. She scored 26 goals in her four year career for the Utes. She is part of the Real Salt Lake women’s developmental program.

Atunaisa Mahe, from West Jordan High, is a freshman at BYU and has earned his way as a defensive lineman for the Cougars.

Sometimes players and parents still try to manipulate the system to their best interests.

“It happened to me once,” Cyprus head boys basketball head coach Tre Smith said. “A student came to me and asked if he transferred into our school if I would give him a spot on the team. I told him he would need to tryout just like everyone else. I never heard from him again. Honestly, tryouts is the toughest part of my job. I try to keep the best players. One year I kept a senior that I cut as a junior. He got better.”

The UHSAA indicates undue influence and recruiting rules to be an important part of their jurisdiction. The violation of the association bylaws can be followed with penalties such as reprimands, probation, suspension, fines and vacating wins. It’s not just players and parents who look for loopholes, coaches aren’t immune either.

Summit Academy High School received allegations of recruiting by one of its assistant football coaches in 2015. The UHSAA suspended the program from the 2016 state football playoffs and fined the school $3,000. An assistant football coach, Jeff Callahan, lost his position at the school.

Callahan was accused of contacting then current Copper Hills players and encouraging them to transfer to Summit. Copper Hills Principal Todd Quarnberg presented copies of text messages as proof to the allegations to the UHSAA.

Initial eligibility is established by a student attending a high school or trying out for a high school team (whichever comes first). After eligibility is established, a student must submit a transfer request with the UHSAA if they want to change schools. A request by the City Journals for a number of transfer requests reviewed by the association was denied. 

Former Summit Academy and current Wyoming long snapper Jesse Hooper transferred from Copper Hills.

“Some of my old friends were not very happy at the moment,” Hooper said. “They understood what was best for me and my family. My old school and my new school were both very professional and welcoming. Wyoming has been everything I could have dreamed about. I started all 12 games. I finished the season healthy. I am truly blessed.”

The UHSAA governs high school athletics and fine arts activities in the state. They include 154 member schools and over 100,000 participating students. The association sanctions 10 girls sports, 10 boys sports along with music, theater/drama and speech and debate.

The UHSAA recently released its first proposal for realignment in 2019. The association has the responsibility to assign its member schools into classifications and regions. According to their bylaws they take into account any factors that promote fair competition. Every two years they arrange the schools into competitive regions. 

“For a lot of kids to be involved in something outside of the classroom it is a good thing,” Hunter High School Principal Craig Stauffer said. “Some of these kids because they get involved they know that they have to keep a certain GPA (grade point average) so they can play. It is like a huge insurance policy. To think they could be out on the streets doing something else makes it all worth it. Winning is not the most important thing although it is nice to be competitive.”

Rob Cuff, the UHSAA executive director, told the City Journals in a recent story, “Winning teams and competitive balance is not the goal of the association. Our mission is about participation.”