CHARLESTON – A game of football is being played in court.
On Thursday, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court, seeking to overturn a Tuesday ruling by Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster that would allow four South Charleston players to play in the state Class AAA championship game.
When that game will be played is now up in the air. The WVSSAC on Wednesday also said it has delayed that game – scheduled for Saturday – per an order by Ohio Circuit Judge Arthur Recht. The WVSSAC made the decision to delay the title game "pending resolution of litigation" in Kanawha County.
Just before noon Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a scheduling order saying the respondents -- Webster and the four players -- have until noon on Monday, Dec. 6 to file responses. Any other motions, including amicus requests, must be filed by then, too.
"This is a very unfortunate and unique situation," SSAC Executive Director Gary Ray said in a statement Wednesday. "Our hope is to settle the Class AAA football championship on the field of competition. We have directed our attorney to do all that he can to expedite a fair and final resolution of this matter."
In Thursday's court filing, the WVSSAC asks for an expedited ruling.
"The delay of the game poses problems for high school sports," the petition states. "A significant number of high school football players are also members of high school basketball teams. High school boys basketball practice began on Nov. 15, 2010, and the first boys' basketball game can be played on Dec. 14, 2010.
"The likelihood of inclement weather affecting the game increases the later the game is scheduled."
The South Charleston players -- Tyler Harris, Pierra Henry, Emerson Gagnon and Trevond Reese -– were suspended on Nov. 22 for one game by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission for their involvement in a fight at the end of the Black Eagles' Class AAA quarterfinal game Nov. 19 against Hurricane at Laidley Field.
On Nov. 23, Webster granted a temporary restraining order to allow the athletes to play in the semifinal game against Brooke, claiming the players "presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that they will suffer immediate and irreparable harm" if they had to wait for a hearing before they could play, according to Webster's order.
Webster said there was not enough time to schedule a hearing for the players and the WVSSAC to present their sides of the story because of the Thanksgiving holiday.
South Charleston went on to win the Nov. 27 semifinal game 29-28 and advance to the Saturday's championship game in Wheeling.
Tuesday's hearing in front of Webster included the WVSSAC, the players and attorneys for both sides. The attorneys argued whether the players were properly ejected following the midfield brawl in the final seconds of the game.
The WVSSAC claims the four players should be suspended for one game, which would prohibit them from the title contest against Martinsburg.
The players' attorney, Ben Salango, was trying to block the suspensions pending later court action. Salango said high school football rules disallow officiating crews from ejecting a player after the end of a game.
Salango said the call has to be made on the field before the end of the game, which he said was not the case. He argued that the referees had ended the game with 14 seconds left on the clock before any players were ejected.
The WVSSAC's motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order was denied, according to Webster's order.
"The Court ... does not find persuasive WVSSAC's argument that the officials' jurisdiction extends beyond the game until the officials' submit the Special Reports to the WVSSAC and the offending schools' principals," the order states.
The WVSSAC was represented by Beckley attorney Bill Wooton.
Also Tuesday, the Brooke County Board of Education filed its lawsuit against the WVSSAC requesting a temporary restraining order to postpone Saturdays's Class AAA championship game between South Charleston and Martinsburg. The board also requested the court prohibit the WVSSAC from canceling the championship game altogether. Recht granted a 10-day delay on the championship game.
Salango was a member of finance committee to elect Webster as a judge. After being appointed to that seat by former Gov. Joe Manchin, Webster won the right to finish out the term on the bench in early November by defeating Charleston attorney Dan Greear.
But neither Wooton, who is the WVSSAC's attorney, nor Salango said his role in Webster's election campaign had any bearing on the ruling. The case was randomly assigned to Webster by the court's computer docketing system.
"In West Virginia, candidates for judge have to campaign and raise money, and, frankly, the public at large doesn't care about judges so they can't raise money from very many other people than lawyers," Wooton told the Charleston Daily Mail.
Wooton actually served with Webster in the House of Delegates. Wooton still is a Delegate.
"I certainly do not have a problem with her prior professional relationship with Mr. Wooton," Salango told the Daily Mail. "He's known Judge Webster probably a lot longer than I have. And I have no doubt that my contributions or his involvement in the Legislature will not affect the outcome of the case."