After ineligibility ruling, Douglass searching for answers, wins

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Commentary

October 15, 2006|By MILTON KENT

In a perfect world, or at least one far better than the one we've got, there would be a statute of limitations on how long one malicious act and the consequences that flow from it continue to pound on innocent kids and their coach.

If nothing else, there would be concrete answers about how and why the act happened and what was done to make sure it didn't happen again.

Almost a year after the rug was pulled from under his team just as it was about to be rewarded for its best season in years, Douglass football coach Joe Holland and his players are still looking for answers.

"I don't think they have really gotten by it," Holland said. "It's something that really hasn't been resolved to a certain degree, in their minds. It's something that they deal with on a daily basis. It kind of got snowed over. We just have to keep moving on."

In a real way, Holland and the Douglass team have moved on from a late-season ruling by the city school board - later upheld by an independent hearing officer - that the Ducks had to forfeit their victories from last year's 9-1 season because of the alleged use of an ineligible player.

The calendar forces you to move forward, but it doesn't stop you from looking back and wondering why the school's first winning campaign in seven years, a Division II city title and the first state playoff berth in school history were washed away.

You also wonder why someone waited until after the regular season but before the state playoffs to blow the whistle. And why no one stepped forward with the necessary documentation to prove that nothing was wrong and that the players and coaches weren't at fault.

This year, the wonder would be why Douglass, with 21 players gone from last year, has to play a Division I schedule - against city heavyweights such as Dunbar and Patterson and Edmondson - when its official record from last year is 0-10, which would indicate a Division II schedule.

"I admire their resilience, the guys that returned," Holland said. "They realize, the same way a coach realizes, the level we played at last year and they're proud of that. To be back here - and we're not winning - that's a lot of resolve on their parts. It's a learning experience, if nothing else."

Holland, who teaches English at Garrison Forest Middle School, said the decision to return to Douglass wasn't an easy one, particularly with the confusion and turmoil that arose last fall.

"There were definitely a few thoughts in my mind," Holland said. "Initially, there was a lot of resentment, not to anyone in particular, but mainly about the whole situation."

And who could blame him? The allegation that Douglass used an ineligible player has cast a pall on all the hard work Holland has put in during the two years he has been at the school.

Holland has not only been trying to make the Ducks winners on the field, but to demonstrate to his players - all black and many from tough neighborhoods - that working hard and playing by the rules is a viable life option.

So, what happens the first time they have success doing it his way? Someone, probably associated with a rival school, reports them. Former principal Isabelle Grant and athletic director Mary Hughee steadfastly maintained that the player in question was eligible.

However, sources said Grant and Hughee failed to present documentation to back up their claim. Grant was removed as principal last April, and Hughee has been replaced by former Southwestern AD Tina Queen.

By July, Holland said, he had decided that if the kids could swallow their anger and disappointment and return, then he could as well.

"I didn't want to quit coaching, because I feel like I have a lot to offer," Holland said. "I learned a lot in the time that I've been coaching. I've been provided some good opportunities to teach things that I was taught and some that I wasn't taught in high school. I just always have a hunger to give the kids an edge that I had to wait until the college level to get. That didn't really deter my fire in wanting to coach. It stymied me wanting to be here in this school."

When Holland returned, he found that beyond the 17 seniors who graduated last year, four players transferred, including Sheldon Waller, a second-team All-Baltimore City pick who had nine interceptions as a defensive back last season, and took those stats to City.

The departures left Douglass with only 11 returning players - two of them returning starters. There's a lot of inexperience on the roster, and his offensive line is woefully undersized, with just one player weighing more than 200 pounds.

The results are predictable: The Ducks are off to an 0-4 start, after Friday's 22-14 loss to Southside. Holland said the players resembled "the Keystone Kops" in early games, but appeared to have turned a corner last weekend in the 28-12 loss to Poly in which cohesiveness and camaraderie seemed to replace confusion.

This season may turn out to be a long one for Joe Holland and Douglass, but at least this year, all the obstacles are visible and their opponents will have to beat them on the field and not with stealth phone calls and empty promises.

"I look at it this way: You play the hand you were dealt," Holland said. "I tell the kids the same thing. We're still going to prepare, and we're still going to teach the same thing. Regardless of who's here, we still have to coach the same fundamentals of football.

"Some people may want to know, `Why are they still scouting teams if they're losing?' That's what you do. You prepare your players. We're still going to do everything according to how we run our system, even if we haven't been on the winning side this year."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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