Thankfully, once again the focus is on wrestling.
Well, kind of ...
Every match I attend I get asked about so-and-so and if I think they can get to states, or even regionals. I get asked whether I think Central Columbia, Mifflinburg or Wyalusing is going to win district duals. It's fun to talk about wrestling. It's fun to discuss possibilities and matchups and potential.
But eventually the conversation turns. A more serious tone of a person looking for validation in their opinion, and looking for answers to a situation that just doesn't seem to make sense.
Why isn't Zain Retherford wrestling?
It's an interesting question to field because Benton isn't even in the Sun-Gazette's coverage area. But no story I've worked on over the last 12 months has generated the interest of the people I deal with the way Retherford's transfer from Line Mountain to Benton has. But the impact of Retherford, a 2010 PIAA wrestling champion, either in or out of the lineup carries an interest throughout District 4 and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Mason Zimmerman of Line Mountain, who may have been Retherford's biggest competition for a district and regional title, cares as much about the outcome of Retherford's contested transfer as three-time state champion Jimmy Gulibon of Derry does. Gulibon may have been challenged like he hasn't yet been challenged by Retherford in his chase to become the 10th wrestler in state history to win four state titles.
The simple answer to the question is because District 4 ruled Retherford's transfer was at least materially motivated by athletic purposes and the PIAA Appeals Board agreed with the decision. The real answer seems to go far beyond that explanation though. And it's an answer none of us are really privy to. We can really only guess.
So when a fan calls me at the office, sends me an email, or approaches me at a high school wrestling competition wondering why Retherford really isn't wrestling, the most I can do is shrug my shoulders and say I don't know. It's an answer the Retherford family itself doesn't seem to have, either.
They stormed out of the Warrior Run High School library following the district hearing which ruled Retherford ineligible to compete in his junior year wrestling season.
It's really bad. Shame on (the District 4 committee)," is all Sarah Retherford, the mother of Zain, said as she and her family walked out of the building following three hours of testimony.
So, in an effort to curtail the conversations of this during tournaments and junior high matches, here's my opinion for the masses:
Sarah Retherford was right. I get the strange feeling sitting through a pair of state hearings and listening to different sources tell me things off the record that Zain is merely a pawn caught in the middle of a disagreement or hurt feelings amongst a bunch of adults. And unfortunately, a 16-year old kid is the one who is paying the price.
After Retherford's first hearing with the PIAA Appeals Board in which they found procedural problems from the district hearing and remanded the case back to District 4, something District 4 Chariman Jim Zack said really stuck with me. To paraphrase, he said the group of adults making up the District 4 Committee and the PIAA Appeals Board need to do what is right for Zain.
But the reality is, the only people doing what is right for Zain are his parents Allen and Sarah. They saw a child of theirs in distress, one who was being bullied by his classmates and finally was able to tell his parents of the torment and anguish he was being put through. He said he no longer wanted to attend the school he had been at nearly his entire life.
Zain even said on his Facebook page earlier this month hit "entire family has never been happier." The junior hasn't spent the weeks since the PIAA ruling sulking around town. He's been in the wrestling room working out with two-time state placewinner Colt Cotten. He's been on the bench for dual meets, helping as much as he can as a coach even though he can't compete. He even traveled out to the prestigious Powerade tournament this week with his team.
The Retherfords have improved their situation far beyond just Zain's school life. His father is traveling a shorter amount of time to get to his new job. His mother is closer to Bloomsburg University where she is taking classes and closer to medial facilities where she is being treated for an illness.
Answer me this Line Mountain administrators, what's so wrong with that?
The Retherfords have done things in the correct way. The whole family is living in their new home in the Benton School District. The family recently tried to purchase a home, but the sale fell through. Zain isn't living in a distant uncle's basement during the week traveling back to the family farm in Dornsife on weekends. His sister Hannah competed competed for the Benton field hockey team this fall. Zain even competed for the Benton soccer team without interruption this fall.
So again, why is the family improving their situation such a bad thing?
The position Line Mountain officials are in is not an enviable one. If the PIAA really wants to curtail the problem of athletic transfers and preventing a small percentage of schools from being the super powers in each sport, then there must be a checks and balances system of some kind, this this is that system. The current system in place requires the principals of the school a student is leaving and the school to which they intend to transfer to sign off on the transfer. Should one of the schools object to the transfer, that's when there are hearings.
Christian Lovecchio, the attorney for the Retherfords, brought up an interesting point in their final appeal to the PIAA. Would Line Mountain have failed to sign off on Retherford's transfer had he not been a former state wrestling champion? Would they have failed to sign off on the transfer if he had gone to Warrior Run, potentially the closest school to Allen Retherford's new job within the district? Would the transfer have been OK had the Retherfords gone anywhere but Benton, likely the Eagles' biggest rival for team titles at districts or regionals with Retherford in the lineup?
That's a question only Line Mountain superintendent Dave Campbell can answer. Maybe it's necessary to go to a system where all transfers in District 4 have to go through a hearing. Just line up the district committee on a Saturday afternoon and run hearing after hearing until they're complete. Or maybe it's time to have an open enrollment period somewhere during the summer months in which any student can transfer to any school their family so chooses as long as they move their family residence.
One option is at one end of the spectrum and the other is at the complete opposite end and neither is likely very plausible. But hey, isn't either option better than what is currently in place, allowing schools to pick and choose which transfers they contest and for which sports?
The bottom line in all of the confusion and outrage and head scratching decisions that have been made throughout this whole ordeal is that a 16-year old kid is paying the price for the decisions of adults. District 4 wrestling is a little weaker today than it was 12 months ago because we won't see Retherford on the mat until next January. And that's wrong.
Maybe our next discussion during a Saturday tournament or the junior high matches should be about preventing the next transfer from getting this kind of raw deal. I look forward to that talk.
Mitch Rupert covers high school and college wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at
email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mitch_Rupert.