Russ Hughes looked like he walked out of the PIAA headquarters Thursday evening with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Two simple words expressed what he's going through as he waits for District 4, and maybe the PIAA, to make its ruling on whether Zain Retherford will be able to wrestle for his Benton team or not.
"It's tough," Hughes said.
The point is simple, there's more weight on the decision of Retherford's transfer from Line Mountain to Benton than just how it will affect the Tigers' season. There's perceptions of the fans of District 4 wrestling, none of which particularly end well for the parties involved.
Zain Retherford, left, shown wrestling for Line Mountain at the 2011 PIAA?Class AA Northeast Regional tournament against Montoursville’s Caleb Pearson, is waiting to hear from the District 4 Committee if he will be eligible to wrestle this year after transferring to Benton this summer.
If Retherford's transfer is ruled to be at least partially for athletic reasons again by the District 4 Committee, and that decision is upheld by the PIAA, officials at Line Mountain are going to look bad, like they're trying to prevent a kid from doing what he loves and what eventually is likely going to help put him through college.
If the transfer is upheld and Retherford competes in a black Benton singlet this year, then the perception that he was recruited to wrestle for the Tigers is going to follow Hughes.
It's really a lose-lose situation for all the parties involved. And in the meantime, a high school student is being jerked around like a piece of meat. He's entering the most important season in terms of collegiate recruiting, and he's not sure if he's going to be able to compete.
But challenging Retherford's transfer from Line Mountain to Benton is exactly what officials from Line Mountain are supposed to do in this situation. The process of determining the eligibility of transfers in the PIAA is far from perfect, but it's the plan that's in place and the plan that must be adhered to.
It's almost like the BCS in college football. Nobody particularly likes the system, but it's the one we're stuck with.
It's not like Line Mountain is trying to disrupt Retherford's career for their own benefit. It gains nothing by Retherford being ruled ineligible for his junior season - well except for the points edge come the district and regional tournaments. But it's part of the checks and balances system of the PIAA's eligibility standards.
Someone has to be the whistle-blower on a transfer that looks fishy.
"I feel horrible it had to come to this, but I had to stand up for the district," said Line Mountain Superintendent David Campbell following the initial District 4 hearing in September.
But this case is far from fishy. It's not like Retherford is transferring from a school with little to no known wrestling history, to a powerhouse. This is Retherford going from a school that has produced 51 state medals and eight individual champions (Line Mountain), to a school that has 38 state medals with nine individual champions (Benton).
It's not like a situation where former state champion Cody Wiercioch just transferred from Charleroi in District 7 to defending PIAA Class AAA tournament champion Canon-McMillan. Charleroi has three state medals in its history, including two by Wiercioch.
Canon-McMillan was already a favorite to repeat as state champions, and has a storied history that includes 79 state medals, including 15 golds. Yet, Wiercioch's tranfers was only denied at the district level by an 8-6 vote, before the PIAA unanimously overturned that decision, allowing Wiercioch to wrestle this season for the Big Macs.
Retherford's case isn't nearly as fishy as Wiercioch's. The Retherfords have moved the entire family into the Benton school district - Zain played soccer and his sister Hannah played field hockey in the fall season.
This is a lateral move at best. Line Mountain head coach has produced state champions and place-winners, as has Hughes. But Hughes is another victim of circumstance here.
He's unfairly going to get the stigma that he's recruiting wrestlers to join his Benton teams with the number of transfers that have come to the Columbia County school in the years since he took over. And the bottom line is, if he is recruiting, he's not very good at it.
Of the handful of transfers which have come to the school, Mitch Artsma made the most noise with a sixth-place finish at districts his junior year.
Hughes was cleared of recruiting Retherford, who attends the Benton Tiger Wrestling Club, during the course of Retherford's initial District 4 hearing and Thursday's PIAA hearing. In fact, it was Campbell who pointed Retherford in the direction of attending the Benton club.
The right answer in Retherford's case is not an easy one. At this point, the right answer is the answer that comes quickly.
As for what the right answer is, well, your guess is as good as mine.
Mitch Rupert covers high school wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.