Tom Smith – Bishop McCort

Tom Smith, Bishop McCort Catholic High School principal and chief administrative officer, talks on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Bishop McCort Catholic’s athletic programs have been placed on probation and could face stiff penalties if a 10th-grade student-athlete who transferred from Forest Hills to the private school is found to have been recruited.

William Marshall, chairman of the District 6 executive committee, said Friday that a Nov. 3 meeting will decide Bishop McCort’s fate.

According to the minutes from Wednesday’s District 6 meeting, the committee unanimously denied eligibility for wrestling to the student-athlete based on the section of the PIAA bylaws that prohibits transfers in which “the student follows the student’s Coach or other student-athletes to another school to which the Coach or athletes have transferred ...”

The minutes further state that Marshall clarified that the penalty – which would have prevented the student, whose name was not released, from wrestling for Bishop McCort for a full calendar year – has been delayed until a subsequent hearing with Bishop McCort to determine if there is evidence to support the recruiting allegation.

If the committee finds that the student was recruited to Bishop McCort, his eligibility will be reinstated, but the school could face severe penalties.

“When there is a transfer (for athletic intent), only one of two things happen – the student is penalized for transferring for athletic intent or that student was recruited,” Marshall said.

The committee also voted to place Bishop McCort on immediate probation under the section of its bylaws that aims “to ensure that steps are taken by schools to minimize the risk of future violations …” and “to address deficiencies in administrative oversight of the interscholastic athletic program or particular Team at a school.”

Marshall stressed that the move is not designed to punish the school or its athletes.

“Probation is not meant to be punitive,” he said. “It’s a collaborative effort between the District 6 committee and the school to refine practices and understand how they’re following guidelines.”

That could change if the school is found to have recruited the student-athlete whose eligibility is in question.

“The Nov. 3 hearing, if it is determined that there was recruiting, those penalties can be severe,” Marshall said, noting that it could include the suspension of a coach or the program by the PIAA.

Tom Smith, the school’s principal and chief executive officer, is confident that the school will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“I believe, and I welcome the opportunity to work with the D6 committee through this investigative process,” Smith said in a statement to The Tribune-Democrat. “Bishop McCort has been very transparent regarding all aspects of everything that we have offered during the pandemic with the committee regarding education, athletics and those who have transferred into Bishop McCort due to our pandemic response.”

Smith said his school has been able to attract a record number of transfer students in the past year, but not because it was recruiting athletes.

“I have signed off on 88 students citing that, I believe, those students came to Bishop McCort for the excellent education that we are providing and not for athletics,” he said. “I have also made it very clear to all transfers that if the sending school’s administration claimed that the student was ‘following the coach’ or any other infraction, the family would be subject to a hearing before the District 6 committee.”

The allegations of “following a coach” are key because Bill Bassett has been hired to coach the Crimson Crushers junior high and varsity wrestling programs.

Bassett helped build a powerhouse program at Forest Hills, where he was named the District 6 junior high coach of the year after overseeing the top-ranked team in the state.

After a falling-out with the school, Bassett’s son Bo, who is one of the most decorated youth wrestlers in Pennsylvania history, transferred to Bishop McCort along with about a dozen other Forest Hills wrestlers. Most of those transfer students were in junior high last year and did not compete for the Bishop McCort varsity team, although Erik Gibson, a Cornell recruit who was favored to win a state title as a junior, was ineligible for the postseason.

Gibson’s younger brother Mason finished second in the PIAA as a freshman for Bishop McCort.

Bassett referred all comments to Smith regarding the District 6 meeting.

This is not the first time Bishop McCort’s wrestling program has faced recruiting allegations. It was placed on probation amid recruiting allegations in 2017 and junior high coach Allen Andrews was banned from the program for a year. Although it was not PIAA-mandated, then-head coach Shad Benton was removed after leading the Crimson Crushers to a third-place finish at the PIAA Class 2A tournament in their first year of competition.

Smith served alongside John Rizzo as co-coach following Benton’s departure and helped guide Anthony Walters to the school’s first state wrestling title. Since then, the program has struggled to fill a lineup and did not wrestle a dual meet schedule last season and will not do so again this year.

Also on Wednesday, the District 6 committee tabled a decision on a co-op agreement between Bishop McCort and Bishop Carroll Catholic. A co-op between United and Blacklick Valley was approved.

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