Gilbert Christian’s boys basketball team got a big assist from Superior Court Judge Lori Bustamante on Friday, when she granted an injunction that allows junior big men Mitchell Lightfoot and Tony Licavoli to play the remainder of the season.
Both transferred in during the summer from other parts of the state and were originally denied hardships by the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board.
Lightfoot, a 6-foot-9 forward who has committed to New Mexico, came from Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge. He played the first five games of the season, before the AIA made a written ruling on Dec. 11 that Lightfoot and the 6-7 Licavoli (a Prescott High transfer) are both ineligible, because the Executive Board didn’t agree with Gilbert Christian’s application of the prior-contact rule.
At the time, the AIA also said that Gilbert Christian would have to forfeit the five games in which Lightfoot played. Gilbert Christian was 5-1 with Lightfoot, before the school began holding him out after the AIA’s December decision.
After the school exhausted its appeals with the state’s high school sports governing body, the parents of Lightfoot and Licavoli obtained attorney Kerry Martin, who argued during Friday’s late afternoon court hearing that both have suffered irreparable harm by the AIA’s decision, because they were not able to join their teammates in games, not able to get seen by colleges for recruiting, and that there was public persona by media coverage over the matter with the players having to explain to friends why they weren’t allowed to play.
Liana Garcia, an attorney representing the AIA, argued that the AIA prior-contact bylaw “is very straightforward” and it was violated. She also mentioned that the AIA was alerted by several high school administrators and coaches that they felt recruiting had occurred. That initially prompted the AIA to meet with Gilbert Christian regarding the players.
Martin argued that the AIA “back-ended” the bylaw with random rules not written in, regarding involvement in June basketball with the high school team, and that the transfers had to attend at least one day at the new school before being involved with their new high school coach in a club capacity in order to be eligible and not be hit with a prior-contact violation.
Lightfoot, who averaged 15 points and nine rebounds at Ironwood Ridge his sophomore season, played for Arizona Power Basketball in a tournament in Canada in May, after the family began the transfer process with Gilbert Christian in early May, while he was still attending Ironwood Ridge. Coach Kurt Keener, who was hired in March to lead Gilbert Christian’s basketball program, was on that Power staff in the Canada tournament.
Licavoli did not play in that tournament.
The AIA prior-contact bylaw states a student-athlete must sit out a year at the school it transfers to if there is involvement with the receiving school’s coach on a non-school, club team on which the coach is involved before the transfer is approved.
Martin told the judge that in the Frequently Asked Questions part of the AIA bylaw, it doesn’t make clear that a violation occurs if both the sending and receiving schools don’t sign off on it. He said that Gilbert Christian sent the transfer documents to the sending schools, once those families began the transfer process, but it “got ignored.”
After listening to both sides, Bustamante quickly granted an injunction for the players to play.
The AIA’s written December decision “was arbitrary and capricious and these young men will suffer irreparable harm if they are not part of the basketball team,” Bustamante concluded.
Licavoli has yet to play this season after averaging nine points and eight rebounds at Prescott last year.
Both played for Power Basketball, which rents out Gilbert Christian, along with other gyms in the Valley, to conduct workouts.
Keener didn’t join Power’s staff until May.
“I thought this was clear-cut from the outset,” Martin said after Bustamante’s decision. “The boys did everything they needed to do that applied to (transferring). They weren’t recruited. They’ve been vindicated today.”
Chuck Schmidt, associate executive director of the AIA, said that it will be up to the Executive Board on what step it wants to now take.
“We respect the judge’s decision and we’ll give the board the information and see if they want to move forward,” Schmidt said. “We’ll see if they want to proceed with a hearing on the merits or look for options.”
Both players will be ready to help lead Gilbert Christian (11-7) on Tuesday, when it plays its next game at home against Poston Butte.
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