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No Place to Play: Mount Royal Athletes Denied Co-Op by NHIAA ... but Why?

  • Mount Royal’s Andrew Normandin.

  • Mount Royal’s Alex Normandin.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2018

Sunapee — Alex and Andrew Normandin just want the opportunity to play varsity high school baseball. As it turns out, living in New Hampshire hasn’t helped.

The brothers are gifted athletes; Alex’s concentration is basketball and baseball, and Andrew plays both but is especially committed to baseball. They grew up in Henniker and enrolled in Mount Royal Academy, the small Catholic high school of 56 students in Sunapee, during their middle school years. Its mixture of faith and academics were important to them.

Another factor in their decision to enroll was the prospect of playing varsity sports. The brothers were encouraged to learn that the school would soon join the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics, by upgrading its several athletic offerings to full varsity competition for the first time in school history.

That finally came in 2016, when Mount Royal joined the NHIAA fold and promoted its girls and boys basketball teams to Division IV varsity competition. The school’s athletic department, in turn, became a member of the state’s governing body, and the Normandin brothers became part of the first batch of varsity athletes to represent the Knights. Mount Royal hoops has competed in D-IV for the last two seasons.

This spring, when Mount Royal’s jayvee baseball squad did not draw enough interest to field a full team, the school submitted an application to the NHIAA to form a cooperative baseball program with Kearsarge Regional High in North Sutton. The partnership would have given Mount Royal’s seven baseball players, including the Normandins, the opportunity to play varsity baseball for the first time.

But Mount Royal’s attempt to form a co-op was rejected, first by the NHIAA Executive Council and later by an appeals board.

It is a decision that has left Mount Royal headmaster Derek Tremblay and many Mount Royal parents and athletes dumbfounded about what appears to be a lack of enthusiasm among NHIAA officials about using the co-op model as a way to expand athletic opportunities for students. It has them searching for explanations.

“I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s rigged,” Tremblay said last month during an interview in his office. “I’m just left wondering why it happened the way it did. ... I don’t know how you make sense of it.”

It also has left seven of Mount Royal’s athletes with no baseball team on which to play this spring and nowhere else to turn. Were those athletes playing in Vermont, however, they might be able to take advantage of an avenue New Hampshire doesn’t offer: making individual arrangements to play for other schools’ teams.

Alex, a senior, will head off to college this fall without ever having the chance to play varsity baseball. Andrew, a sophomore with hopes of playing college baseball one day, may have to leave Mount Royal to keep those dreams alive.

“I’ve been playing baseball my whole life,” Andrew said. “Frustration is the right word. Basketball and baseball being my two main sports, it would have been nice to get the full experience.”

Proposal Rejected

Mount Royal has had junior varsity baseball for years. Lacking the land to build its own field, the school has borrowed time from neighboring fields for playing time, finding teams in the area to scrimmage. It graduated six athletes from its junior varsity squad a year ago, reducing its number of baseball players to seven this season — four of them seniors and not enough to field another full junior varsity squad.

Tremblay believed the time was right to promote Mount Royal baseball to varsity through a cooperative, defined as a way to “provide educational-based athletic opportunities for schools that may not be able to provide those experiences for their students,” according to the 2017-18 NHIAA Handbook. He began his search last fall.

Tremblay eventually found a willing partner in Kearsarge athletic director Scott Fitzgerald. Tremblay said a co-op application was put together by late October and submitted to the NHIAA later in the fall, beginning a three-step process through the NHIAA’s baseball and classification committees and the executive council that could approve the creation of a Mount Royal-Kearsarge co-op baseball team for the spring.

The baseball committee rejected the proposal; applications often can be looked at as potential competition by other members of sports committees, but do not necessarily mean a proposal still can’t succeed, according to Sunapee High School Principal Sean Moynihan, a member of the NHIAA’s executive council, and Tremblay. As it turns out, the NHIAA has never approved a baseball co-op: 84 of its 88 member schools participate in baseball, but none of those schools operate under such a partnership.

The proposal then moved to the classification committee after an appeal, which voted for it unanimously. But it failed, 14-3, at an NHIAA executive council meeting on Jan. 18, with one person abstaining.

The rationale was threefold, according to minutes of the council meeting:

First, the proposed agreement was ruled incomplete because it was missing approval by the Kearsarge School Board. That was the result of happenstance: A Jan. 4 School Board meeting, when a vote on the proposal was scheduled, was postponed due to a snowstorm. When the board OK’d the plan on a 5-0 vote at its Feb. 22 meeting, it came 24 hours after Mount Royal’s appeal had been denied.

Second, Kearsarge had sufficient numbers to field its own baseball team, and the addition of Mount Royal athletes would displace athletes already on Kearsarge’s baseball team. Kearsarge’s Fitzgerald said the school’s program is low on numbers this spring — down to 18 athletes from a healthy average of about 25 per season — but Mount Royal’s seven athletes would have brought Kearsarge baseball back to its normal capacity. Furthermore, the NHIAA handbook reads, “Every cooperative team will acknowledge a no-cut policy on the application form.”

Third, Mount Royal student-athletes interested in playing baseball had the opportunity to play for the school district in which they live, but chose instead to attend a private school with no varsity baseball program. Moynihan, who voted against the co-op on both the executive council and, later, the appeals board, was one of the council’s most outspoken members on this point. He argued that a co-op would have provided more opportunities for student-athletes from Mount Royal than what is offered to public school students, who are tied to the school district in which they reside.

“There’s a difference between ‘you don’t like the opportunity’ and ‘you don’t have the opportunity,’ ” Moynihan said during an interview last month.

Questions About A Conflict of Interest

On Feb. 10, Tremblay sent the third of three letters to NHIAA Executive Director Jeff Collins in response to the rejection, this one about Moynihan’s participation in the council’s decision.

“As time passes, more information is discovered that evidences the bias against the merits of the application, independent of its actual merits and conformity with the By-Law,” Tremblay wrote. “In a conversation with Sean Moynihan following the release of the minutes, it became apparent that due process was completely compromised. In fact, Mr. Moynihan should have recused himself due to conflict of interest.”

“I do think proximity of location — independently of who is involved ... does lead to some challenges,” Tremblay said in a follow-up email in March. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sunapee has it out for us, but I do think there needs to be some conflict of interest policy implemented to the NHIAA to prevent school leaders whose interests may become entangled from influencing an outcome for a nearby member school.”

Moynihan, who has served on the NHIAA’s executive council for 11 years and as chairman of the state’s basketball committee for three years, said he treated Mount Royal’s co-op proposal as he would have any others.

“I’m pretty comfortable with my reasons for being against it; I stand by that there are questions between a private and public school — a non-boundary school and a boundary school,” Moynihan said on Tuesday. “If you look at the minutes, I’m clearly opposed to the co-op. If (Tremblay) had any objection, maybe it was after he saw the minutes.”

“I am unsure why the Mount Royal principal feels that there is a conflict of interest, as any of these co-operative teams would not compete in Sunapee’s division,” Moynihan added in a follow-up email a day later. “I do feel that private schools being able to form cooperative teams with public schools provides an inequity for opportunity for public school students and provides a possible competitive advantage.”

Collins informed Mount Royal and Kearsarge of the executive council’s decision on Jan. 26. An appeal was held on Feb. 21 in front of five board members — including Moynihan — who were all in attendance at the Jan. 18 executive council meeting where the proposal had first been voted down. The appeal lost, 4-1.

Vermont’s Approach

In Vermont, where high school sports are governed by the Vermont Principals Association, cooperative programs may be established if schools demonstrate that a co-op will increase student participation. A co-op request will be denied if both schools have a sufficient number of athletes to field a team.

Individual student-athletes who attend a school that does not offer a particular sport can apply to join a neighboring school’s program via the VPA’s member-to-member program, which provides “a short-term fix for a school with low participation and/or provide an opportunity for a student/athlete from another school(s) to participate on the team,” according to VPA procedures.

The NHIAA has no such policy. In fact, according to NHIAA rules, a student-athlete can play varsity sports only for one school per academic year, even if the school does not offer a specific sport of their choosing.

The Normandins, for example, could have chosen to play sports in their local school district, John Stark Regional High in Weare; that would have made them eligible to play all sports offered at that school. Instead, the Normandins chose to play basketball at Mount Royal, limiting them to the one varsity sport it had available. They are not permitted to, say, play baseball at Stark and basketball at Mount Royal in the same year.

“It was very important to me to play (basketball) for the school that I go to,” said Andrew Normandin, who admitted he wasn’t aware that choosing to play varsity basketball at Mount Royal had disqualified him from playing varsity baseball elsewhere this spring. “ ... I like the school I go to, and I want to represent my school.”

While some athletic officials in New Hampshire oppose the Vermont approach because they fear it might create an environment in which a top athlete could be recruited to an already-competitive team, others think it should be considered.

Sunapee’s Moynihan is among them.

“I think it would be worth looking at,” Moynihan said. “You want to give as many kids an opportunity as possible with it being relatively fair opportunities and without unfair advantages.”

‘Very Frustrating’

After Mount Royal’s appeal was denied, Tremblay asked the NHIAA to consider a hardship waiver — a term he conceded isn’t provided for in the organization’s bylaws — that would allow Mount Royal students to play baseball at the schools of their home districts.

His request was denied.

“I think they just need to make sports more available to play,” Andrew Normandin said of the NHIAA’s current policies. “Even if we don’t do a co-op, if the sport isn’t offered at our school, I don’t see why the student can’t play for his hometown and play for the sports at his school that they do offer.”

Andrew Normandin has played baseball with the Concord Cannons, a summer travel baseball program, since he was 9, and it’s provided him high-level competition throughout the year. He’s also attended Mount Royal since seventh grade and said he’s well aware that facing varsity talent as a high schooler is crucial to getting the exposure he needs to get recruited for the next level.

“I might not be able to go to Mount Royal anymore,” he said. “I might have to switch schools. Maybe another private school? It’s tough. It’s very frustrating.”

Tremblay and Mount Royal aren’t done pursuing co-op opportunities. Mount Royal is in the process of setting up football and softball co-ops with Kearsarge and a boys hockey co-op with Lebanon in the near future. He also is set to expand Mount Royal’s varsity offerings to include boys and girls soccer beginning in the fall, with participation numbers finally stable enough to compete at the D-IV level.

“The ultimate goal was we have kids here who want to play sports together, at the same place,” Tremblay said. “That’s the only goal.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.