Instead of getting ready for Friday’s game at East Mecklenburg, Rocky River High football coach Orlando Gray planned to collect his team’s helmets and shoulder pads from players Thursday, signaling the end of a season that he feels is ending too early.
“I just haven’t come to grips with all this,” Gray said Tuesday night. “I’m just not ready to take up the pads.”
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Last Monday, Oct. 29, Rocky River was involved in a fight with Independence High during a 37-14 win that appeared to send the Ravens to the 2018 playoffs. But because of the fight, the N.C. High School Athletic Association suspended all but six of Gray’s players. The NCHSAA also stripped away Rocky RIver’s playoff eligibility.
Last week, there were three similar incidents in games involving six other teams - East Mecklenburg and Harrisburg Hickory Ridge; Wilson Fike and Wilson Hunt; and Winterville South Central and Greenville Conley.
School officials in Wilson County decided that Fike and Hunt would end their seasons and give up postseason eligibility after sheriffs had to use pepper spray to stop the brawl between the rival schools. The NCHSAA ruled that the local teams would lose playoff eligibility because three or more players were ejected for fighting.
All the local schools involved - Gray’s Ravens, Independence, East Meck and Hickory Ridge - decided to forfeit their final two games because so many varsity players were suspended. The schools could have played their final two games with junior varsity players, though they would not have been eligible for the playoffs, regardless of the outcome of those games.
On Tuesday, Gray read that South Central and Conley were continuing their seasons. Both teams will play in the postseason. Some playoff projections have unbeaten South Central as a No. 1 seed in the eastern 4A bracket.
“My mouth dropped,” Gray said. “It’s disheartening, especially for a group of kids I know worked extremely hard to change the culture here and showed character and helped me building this Rocky River program into one they respect and others would want to bring their kids to.”
NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker told the Observer Wednesday that there were some key differences to what happened in the Conley-South Central game and the two games in Charlotte:
▪ The Hickory Ridge-East Meck game was stopped late in the third quarter. The Hickory Ridge players crossed the field as a skirmish broke out on the East Meck sideline.
▪ The Independence-Rocky River incident happened at the end of the game, she said, but before its official completion.
▪ The Conley incident happened after the game and involved spectators, Tucker said.
State rules state that players who leave the bench during an incident will be ejected, as if they were fighting themselves. Three ejections in one season will cause a team to lose its playoff eligibility.
After a game, players cannot be ejected for leaving the bench.
“We dealt with (Conley-South Central) as a ‘game over’ and it is a situation that occurred after the contest had ended,” Tucker said. “As for the others, one was in the third quarter, the game was still going on, and one was an end-of-game situation and there was a continuation of the ending of the (Independence-Rocky River) game, and the game hadn’t totally ended.
“That, in and of itself, made them different.”
Pitt County Schools sent a press release Tuesday stating that “immediately after the (Conley-South Central) game, student fans stormed the field, resulting in several altercations and some regrettable displays of bad sportsmanship.”
The county announced that both schools were fined, players suspended, and some students were banned from attending any more games this season. Both coaches were required to take teaching and modeling behavior courses.
Tucker said the NCHSAA also handed down further penalties that were not announced by Pitt County, but couldn’t discuss those because of association rules.
And she challenged any notion that any district, including CMS, was being treated unfairly by the NCHSAA.
“I remember when I taught school,” she said. “There’s always someone saying (they’re) not being treated fairly. I always had to deal with my students individually and on their own merit. None of this makes me happy. We had to levy fines and deal with situations where students were ejected. ...It’s difficult, at best, and it is unfortunate.
“I’d ask folks look at this as education-based athletics and each one, in its own merit, was a teachable moment, and I think the administrators and all of those folks at our member schools have accepted what happened and they’ve moved on. I think it’s unfair for us to continue to say, ‘Look at what’s happened over here and now you’re not doing this.’....We didn’t say (the suspended schools) couldn’t play anymore. They were always at liberty to move up their jayvee teams.”
Gray said he never considered taking his six eligible players and moving up his junior varsity for two games. He didn’t think it was safe.
He just watched the film of the Conley game and reviewed the tape of his game and doesn’t understand the differences.
Gray said a Rocky River player, who doesn’t play much, made an interception on the final play of the game and tried to run it back for a score. He was tackled by two Independence players as time expired. Gray thought the two Independence players were aggressive, perhaps upset at the result. Players from both teams ran over, leaving the bench area - violating the state rule. Gray felt at least some of his players were running over to celebrate a big play from a player who had not made many.
The NCHSAA determined the game had not officially ended.
“Our kids went to separate and de-escalate and we go get in line to shake hands,” Gray said. “It was all of 25 seconds. The report (the state) got from the official said he assumed when our players went towards the scuffle, we were going to fight.
“Our kids didn’t go to fight. But that’s one of the things that troubled us. How can you make an assumption on something that was going to happen?”
Rocky River appealed the initial ruling and was denied. So reading that the Pitt County teams were continuing their seasons, Gray said it hurt.
“That’s disturbing,” he said. “I know my kids will want to know how and my parents will want to know how they are able to still play and we’re not. I think our kids tried to do the right thing. We were able to shake hands and pray together at the 50 (yard line) after that happened. That’s how I know our issue was nowhere near as severe as other issues that arose around the state.”