The return of senior guard De’Von Cooper to the Waggener High School boys basketball team last month added a dimension to the race for the Seventh Region championship, but it remains to be seen whether he still will be eligible when the postseason begins in two weeks.
Since Cooper received a temporary restraining order from Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Ann Bailey Smith on Jan. 20 – making him eligible to play – the Kentucky High School Athletic Association has been pursuing its options to contest the ruling.
“It is an extremely active matter for us,” KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said.
Cooper’s case has reinvigorated the decades-long debate over the KHSAA’s transfer rules, specifically how the association should rule on someone with Cooper’s circumstances.
The 6-foot-4 guard is one of Kentucky’s top college prospects in the Class of 2017 and is averaging 21.1 points in his seven games since rejoining the Wildcats (15-10), including a season-high 31 in a 75-59 loss to Trinity on Jan. 31.
Cooper led Waggener in scoring as a freshman and a sophomore before transferring last season to Findlay Prep, a highly regarded prep school in Henderson, Nevada, that travels the country playing similar programs.
Cooper transferred back to Waggener last summer and was ruled ineligible during all three stages of the KHSAA’s process – initial ruling, appeal and final decision by Tackett.
KHSAA rules require all transfers to sit out one year if they have played varsity athletics at one school and want to play varsity athletics at another school. The KHSAA lists 10 exceptions for a waiver of the one-year sit-out rule, including a change in residence by the player and his or her family. Because Cooper’s family did not move to Nevada with him, he did not qualify for that exception or any of the other nine.
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“At that point, the school is done with the process,” Waggener athletic director Jamie Dumstorf said.
Cooper’s family took the case to court and received the temporary restraining order last month. Dumstorf noted that school officials can’t be involved in the court proceedings at risk of being penalized by the KHSAA.
KHSAA rules state schools may not be punished for allowing an athlete to play after a court order has been issued. However, Tackett noted the KHSAA still can fine schools for legal fees it incurs in such cases. Tackett said that stipulation was added to the rules by member schools.
“The schools put that in because they wanted to make sure they’re holding each other accountable,” Tackett said. “If you’re going to spend the association’s money, you better be doing it on something that can help all 280 schools, not just help you.”
Tackett said cases such as Cooper’s – which involve a transfer back to a “home district” – have been a controversial issue for the KHSAA since the 1970s. He said member schools did not want the exception because it presents a scenario in which an athlete could lose his or her position on a team because of a player transferring back to his or her school, particularly one who had left for what was perceived to be a “better opportunity” at another school.
“What do you tell a person who got that (playing) spot and earned that playing time and earned that opportunity?” Tackett said. “Suddenly they can be displaced by this kid who was just shopping around. Every time we’ve talked about return to home district, that analogy comes up between some of our public and private schools.
“Part of the purpose of the transfer rule is that it’s not just about the student coming in. It’s the displaced student who has earned their opportunity.”
Tackett would not discuss specifics of Cooper’s case but said in similar cases the KHSAA asks the ruling court to issue an injunction instead of a temporary restraining order, which then allows the KHSAA to take the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
“Our procedure behind the scenes becomes to get information, make other procedural things to that same court to get them to make a decision – either issue an injunction or dissolve it,” Tackett said. “Leaving it temporary leaves everybody in limbo.
“That’s why we push courts … to make a final decision, because of our time schedules. What they might do in a criminal case or another civil case, if they do that in our matters the season is over.”
Cooper said he’s keeping his focus on the court. Along with chasing a Seventh Region title, Cooper is chasing his dream of playing in college. He said Morehead State, Northern Kentucky and Western Kentucky are showing the most interest.
“It’s been crazy, been tough,” Cooper said. “I waited it out and finally got the word. I just tried to come help my team out.
“… It has a negative effect (on recruiting), but I’m just letting it go by and being patient and trusting the process. Nobody has dropped out. They still want me, but they want to see me play.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.