Greg Burke

Richland head coach Greg Burke is shown during a Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference game against Bishop Guilfoyle, in Johnstown, PA., Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

The Richland High School boys basketball team was eliminated from the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference semifinal round in unusual circumstances on Thursday.

The Rams had defeated visiting Westmont Hilltop 52-41 on Wednesday night, seemingly securing the No. 4 seed and a visit to LHAC top-seeded Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic on Thursday night.

But on Thursday morning, the District 6 Committee ruled that Richland had to forfeit the game against the Hilltoppers because a coach received two technical fouls during the junior varsity game, which by rule made him ineligible to coach in the varsity game.

The coach, unnamed by Richland officials, participated in the varsity game – Richland’s senior night celebration – after officials in both the junior varsity game and varsity games indicated he could coach, according to Richland Director of Educational Services Brandon Bailey, who served as a spokesman for the school district.

District 6 Chairman Bill Marshall indicated Rams varsity head coach Greg Burke received the technical fouls during the junior varsity game.

Burke said he could not comment and deferred questions to Bailey.

The forfeit knocked Richland from the LHAC fourth spot and enabled Bedford High to move into the final seed and travel to Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic for Thursday’s semifinal round. With the forfeit victory Westmont Hilltop also leap-frogged Richland into the No. 2 seed in District 6 Class AAA while the Rams slipped to No. 3.

“Last night – a big regular-season basketball game, Westmont and Richland – one of our coaches during the jayvee game, who wasn’t even coaching in the jayvee game, got into a disagreement with an official during halftime of the game when the players were off the court,” Bailey said. “The official ended up assessing multiple technicals to that coach. By the rule of the law, that’s an automatic ejection for the remainder of the evening.”

After the incident in the junior varsity game, the matter was addressed on the court as to whether the coach could participate in the varsity game, Bailey said.

“There was discussion with our district officials as well as the jayvee and varsity officials at (Wednesday) night’s game, both at halftime (in the junior varsity game) and in between the JV and varsity game,” Bailey said. “First of all, no adult here in the Richland School District wanted to put our kids in harms way.

“The coach was asked to apologize to the official. The official said he wanted to see the coach coach in the varsity game,” Bailey added. “We asked the varsity officials. They said, ‘It’s up to you. We will not remove him from the court.’ Nobody said anything last night. The officials doing the varsity game didn’t remove the coaches. The kids went out and won the game. They played great.”

PIAA rules prevail

But on Wednesday night, the specter of a potential forfeit surfaced.

“It was brought to my attention that there may be a question of the result of (Wednesday) evening’s game and that District 6 would be handling it,” said LHAC Chairman Scott Close, the Somerset High athletic director. “We alerted Bedford to wait until Thursday morning until we had a final decision.”

District 6 addressed the situation.

Coincidentally, both the LHAC and District 6 had regularly-scheduled meetings on Thursday.

“I know the administration at Richland and I know they would enforce all the regulations and by-laws,” said District 6's Marshall, the superintendent at Penn Cambria School District. “I wasn’t there, but there was so much confusion of how it happened, when it happened.

“It was senior night. Richland was in no way trying to circumvent the rule. The extenuating circumstances made the whole thing cloudy.”

Both Burke and Bailey have sons who are senior players on the team.

But Marshall said the PIAA rules are clear.

“It’s under Article 13, Section 3, Letter A of the PIAA By-laws and Constitution,” he said. “It states that if a coach were to be ejected from a jayvee game, they are ejected from all events that night.”

State playoffs not affected

Marshall said despite defending district champion Richland’s falling a spot in the upcoming District 6-AAA playoffs, the Rams still will host a first-round playoff game.

“It’s terrible that it happened and they lost their opportunity to compete in the Laurel Highlands championships, but according to the PIAA rules, coach (Greg) Burke is permitted to coach in the PIAA playoffs,” Marshall said.

The rules state that a coach ejected from a junior varsity game must sit out the next junior varsity game, Marshall said. It does not impact a varsity playoff game.

“He’d have to miss the next jayvee contest, which wouldn’t be until next year,” Marshall said.

Bailey said Richland officials went as far as contacting the PIAA and Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi on the matter.

“(Robert) Lombardi said we did not meet the criteria for the appeal,” Bailey said.

“The PIAA officials who called the basketball game are not able to override the multiple technical fouls. They’re not able to make that decision,” Bailey said of the explanation he received from the PIAA. “The people here (Wednesday) night, after talking to officials, thought they were able to coach – or our athletic department would not allow him to do it. An extraordinarily unfortunate situation.”

Close said the LHAC simply followed the District 6 decision.

“That was a complete District 6 and school-district decision – and we just react,” Close said.

“The Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference by-laws state that the top four teams qualify for the semifinals via their league record,” Close said in a statement. “After District 6’s decision on Wednesday night’s result, Bedford is the fourth-place team and will play against Bishop Guilfoyle. All affected teams were aware that nothing would be finalized until District 6 made its final ruling.” 

Bedford benefits

Bedford went from an outsider to a semifinalist. The unexpected news had Bisons coach Jason Ressler prepping for a game on short notice.

“We knew (Wednesday) night something was going on but it definitely is unexpected,” said Ressler, whose team was 16-6. “It’s almost like a bonus game for us. We’re going to go in, play and be loose and have fun. There is very little pressure, I guess.

“We found out at 11 o’clock this morning. It’s such an unexpected thing,” he added. “It’s the first time Bedford has ever made any postseason Laurel Highlands – anything.”

Richland will next host No. 6 Mount Union on Feb. 21 in the first round of the 6-AAA playoffs.

“I know our student-athletes are resilient and I know they will come back with a vengeance and do great in the district playoffs,” Bailey said. “That’s all we can do. This (LHAC) opportunity is gone for them.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.

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