Future unclear for Trinity Lutheran football program

Following a rule enforcement, which led to prematurely ending the football season, Trinity Lutheran High School officials met with members of the Indiana High School Athletic Association on Monday.

The night of Sept. 13, Trinity canceled its season after the IHSAA said it was in violation of an enrollment rule. The school was in violation of Rule 12 of the IHSAA bylaws following a report from a school without a football program but with a player on Trinity’s roster.

Rule 12-1-a reads “A student is eligible to participate in an athletic program involving IHSAA-recognized sports only at the student’s school of enrollment or at the public school serving the student’s residence.”

Trinity’s team roster of 21 players, including students enrolled in homeschool programs, Sandy Creek Christian Academy and Lighthouse Christian Academy, was cut down to 12 after the rule enforcement. Those students can’t play for private schools based on the state’s funding formula.

Trinity Principal Clayton Darlage said he and Athletic Director Andy Denny met with IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox and Assistant Commissioner Robert Faulkens, who also is in charge of football, on Monday.

Before meeting with the IHSAA, Trinity already had submitted a report of what happened.

“Once we become aware of a situation, like any other IHSAA member school, we have to do a violations report,” Darlage said. “Last week, I completed the report and laid it all out as far as what happened down here and the evidence I uncovered and sent it up to Mr. Faulkens and Mr. Cox. I think, technically, they had 30 days to rule on it but sent it back to me a couple evenings ago.”

While the season already was canceled by the school, Darlage said the IHSAA told him they are putting the football program on probation for the remainder of this year.

“Since we canceled the season, there isn’t much done there,” Darlage said. “They also made a formal reprimand of coach Mike Wilson. They then commended us on promptly reporting and taking care of the situation as soon as we became aware that we were in violation of their bylaws. We would have had to forfeit any wins, but we didn’t have any this season.”

Both Denny and Darlage are in their first year of working at Trinity. When the program went back under Trinity’s wing last year under former Principal Ben Stellwagen and Athletic Director Aaron Rudzinski, the school was under the impression it was following the rules.

“The plan for the football program, which was designed as a homeschool club program, was introduced and presented to our school board,” Darlage said. “As far as that goes, that was our design. At that time, everyone was in the understanding that it was OK and that it was in accordance with the way the bylaws read as being a club team — not being an IHSAA football program in other words — that it was fine.”

Faulkens said the official ruling on the violations will be in the IHSAA’s next set of minutes that will be released.

“The next step is the commissioner will make a decision with respect to their program in the violations,” he said in a phone call Wednesday. “We will then monitor them. They have to self-report. We don’t have an investigative body. When the rules are violated, our members have to report to us. The self-report and violations will go in the next minutes of the next board meeting.”

There are still some loose ends that Darlage and staff are trying to take care of with the program.

“The program was set up through a football board of directors. I believe they had an initial fee to start playing, being designed as a homeschool sport,” Darlage said. “That’s something I need to follow up on to make sure that those individuals are being taken care of, compensate or reimbursed as needed.”

Darlage said the players have handled the situation with maturity.

“I’m really thankful of the way our young men handled this situation,” he said. “For the season to be stripped from them midseason, they’ve been very graceful and positive. They’ve handled it with a mature attitude. We haven’t had to deal with any negative behavior concerning this. I’m really thankful for that, and I want to commend the student-athletes on that, as well.”

In an effort to better understand the IHSAA’s rules, Darlage invited Cox down to the school to speak with all coaches and field any questions.

“He wanted to come down and talk to the football coaches. I said, ‘Better yet, why don’t you just come down and talk to all of our coaching staffs,’” Darlage said. “I invited him down for next Wednesday, but it didn’t allow for his schedule. Mr. Denny and I are going to work with the calendar and try to find a good date for Bobby to come down and talk to everyone, just being informative and sharing with all of our staffs so we can have a good relationship with the IHSAA moving forward.”

Darlage said he was told by Cox the football program will not be on probation at the start of next year. He said if Trinity has enough players, it can play football.

“At this point, we haven’t had any good decisions on the future of football,” he said. “Mr. Denny and myself haven’t sat down and talked about the future, and the coaching staff hasn’t either at this point. We’re going to sit back and pray about it and see where the Lord directs to go with this. They say that when one door closes, another one opens. We’re going to be patient and try to evaluate what is best for the school as a whole and our kids and our students.”

The middle school program set up last season will continue to operate.

“Hopefully by this winter or early next spring, we can have a good, solid answer on the future of football before summer rolls around,” Darlage said. “I can foresee the middle school/youth program continuing to play and grow throughout the lower grades. There would maybe be a long-term plan at that point.

“As far as I know, they aren’t affiliated by or directed by the IHSAA. It is just a middle school team that has different Lutheran school feeder players on it. They have some pretty good numbers and a good following on practices and games. It’s neat to be able to see those kids be able to play.”

Faulkens said the situation with Trinity was unique due to the fact of the number of players that were affected by the rule enforcement.

“Violations aren’t new to anybody,” he said. “We have people who have been doing jobs for 30, 35 years that are making the same violations that Trinity had. This one was exasperated by the fact that they had to cancel their season because of the violation. That’s a rarity. Normally, it only affects one or two kids. Here, we have a number of kids who were in violation of our rules.”