At their first opportunity to gather as a group since their season was blindsided, members of the La Quinta High School girls’ soccer team mostly sat in silence Monday.
Huddled together on the home bleachers at the stadium where they were unbeaten this season, the girls were addressed by their coach, Bob Quattlebaum, following a roller coaster of a weekend.
“There really wasn’t much to say,” senior midfielder Stephanie Esquivel said in a somber tone.
On Friday, the Blackhawks won on penalty kicks in overtime to advance to the CIF Southern Section Division V semifinals for the first time in school history. Less than 36 hours later, on Sunday morning, Quattlebaum called a team meeting to inform players that their season was suddenly over.
“We went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in two days,” Esquivel said.
After discovering that La Quinta’s suspended leading scorer, Brielle Leon, watched the quarterfinal game from outside the fence at the stadium, the CIF-SS office blew the whistle.
A CIF official contacted La Quinta administrators Saturday evening to ask if Leon had indeed been in attendance. When it was confirmed that she had viewed the game from beyond the fence, the Blackhawks were deemed in violation of bylaw 2416 and forced to forfeit Friday’s victory, thus ending their season.
Though CIF does not have an appeal process, La Quinta athletic director Dan Armstrong said he made numerous phone calls and sent emails to CIF, making the case for why the rule should not be applied. He said some parents have contacted their assemblyman, and flirted with taking legal action.
Parents, players, students and others have likewise made phone calls to the CIF-SS office, outraged that a team would be penalized even though the player in question was clearly outside the stadium, not on school property.
But CIF has a staunch track record for standing by its rulings, and hasn’t budged.
“There seems to be some thought that we had a choice,” CIF-SS director of communications Thom Simmons wrote in an email to the Desert Sun on Monday. “That was and is not the case. Otherwise, we’d be deciding what rules we will and will not enforce, and that’s neither our roll nor should it be.”
Still, the outpouring of support has continued. Quattlebaum said he was on his phone all day Monday, taking phone calls, texts and emails from coaches throughout Southern California who believe La Quinta was unfairly penalized.
A strong social media push has been made to show support for La Quinta and encourage CIF officials to reverse the penalty. The hashtag #LetLQplay was trending in the valley Monday, and has drawn backing from many affiliated with several other schools in the desert, not just La Quinta.
Players say the outpouring of support has temporarily helped ease the pain.
“It has,” senior defender Brenda Barriga said. “Because then we don’t feel like we’re crazy or that we’re alone in this.”
Added senior midfielder Sydney Hannibal, “It feels like everyone is behind us, but not one person we need is.”
Simmons, the CIF communications director, said they are simply applying a penalty to a self-admitted violation. But to La Quinta, and evidently others, no violation was committed.
Armstrong acknowledged that Leon was in the vicinity of the stadium, but being near the stadium is not the same as being inside, according to the CIF rules.
“Brielle wasn’t in the stadium,” senior midfielder Rachel Polk said. “It doesn’t specifically say in the rulebook that she cannot sit outside the game, it just says she cannot be in attendance. If she’s outside the stadium, I don’t see why it matters where she is.”
Armstrong said he doesn’t recall CIF ever lifting a penalty in all the years he’s been in athletic administration.
But La Quinta hasn’t completely lost hope yet. After they convened and made their way from the bleachers to the parking lot Monday, players said they won’t give up until the whistle blows on Tuesday night’s semifinal.
And even if it doesn’t work out the way they hope, they won’t let the controversial end to their season affect how they’ll view this year.
“This year has been unbelievable,” Esquivel said. “And at some point, we’ll look at our record compared to other teams, and all the success we had together and realize just how much we’ve accomplished.”