In one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do as a coach, Dave Cosgrove had to tell one of his best teams ever at Pima Community College that it wasn’t going to be allowed to participate in the Western Regionals this week.
That came just three days after winning the Arizona Community College Athletic Association title in an intense and tough match against Phoenix College.
“That’s the worst team meeting I had to be part of,” Cosgrove said at a press conference on Wednesday. “If I felt we were responsible it would be an easy conversation … it was emotional and very, very difficult.”
It was all the result of the National Junior College Athletic Association’s decision to suspend Pima’s men’s soccer team from the tournament, which begins this weekend. Pima, the No. 1 seed in the Western District set in Laramie, Wyo., was scheduled to play Friday.
Word came down Tuesday morning that Pima (18-3-1) would not be allowed after it was part of perceived brawl in its 3-1 victory over Phoenix College on Saturday night at Kino Sports Park.
In a letter to Pima athletic director Edgar Soto and other officials, Mary Ellen Leicht, NJCAA’s executive director, wrote that her office had reviewed video that showed a “non-collegial incident took place at the conclusion of the men’s soccer championship” and neither team would be allowed to advance further this season.
“Participants will recognize their responsibility for proper conduct before, during and after every contest,” the letter from Leicht stated.
The new rule started in April, and it’s been applied four times in the country.
There is no appeal process. Pima felt there was a rush to judgment.
The news hit the Pima community so hard that chancellor Lee Lambert was an active part of the discussion at Wednesday’s press conference.
“The coaches and players have done a tremendous job and we’re very disappointed to receive this negative news,” Lambert said.
Soto said when he got the news of the decision, “I felt like I was dreaming” and he hoped it wasn’t true.
“This is one of my most difficult times as an athletic director,” Soto said.
Cosgrove, who has been with Pima for 19 years, was distraught in telling media members, players, parents and others his story about what had happened.
“I’m really proud of the kids,” he said, his voice breaking. “In a worse-possible scenario on a soccer field they handled themselves exactly the way I wanted them to. Our players were struck and did not retaliate. That’s what we instruct them to do and that’s what we teach them.’
“Put your team before yourself. They did exactly what they were coached to do. If somebody is in trouble go get them out of trouble.”
The NJCAA felt otherwise, saying the two teams participated in “two separate on-field altercations involving Pima CC student-athletes and fans.”
The NJCAA interpreted the rule as hard and fast and with no exceptions.
Pima’s stance is that it’s a rules interpretation and the players’ natural reaction was to “move that direction” to see what was going on. Video appears to show that.
The NJCAA stated in a letter that Pima “tried to entice the situation.”
The letter further commented on the second incident, in which Pima’s players left their celebration (area) and ran toward the altercation.
It was perhaps the second altercation that was Pima’s undoing in that the video the NJCAA used didn’t show the complete picture, Pima officials said on Wednesday.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Soto presented a newer just-obtained video to show Pima was not at fault in either the first or second incident and only had players trying to ease the situation.
“Those kids did nothing wrong, and that will be proven multiple times,” Cosgrove said.
In fact, Soto presented a not-read-yet email from Phoenix College saying its team was at fault.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to apologize for the actions of our student athletes Saturday,” Phoenix College athletic director Samantha Ezell wrote. “It is clear we initialed the fight and the entire incident is heartbreaking and unfortunate. I want to thank you personally for doing all you could with your staff and students to get the field cleared and the situation under control. You and your staff maintained your emotions and kept the incident from escalating.”
Later Wednesday afternoon, Pima officials planned on sending that email along with the new video which presents a clearer picture of what took place. They are still hoping the NJCAA will again review the material to reconsider its decision.
Soto added the incident will be used “as a teaching moment” and what the players have learned is “life isn’t always fair.”
In the meantime, Pima will hope against hope the NJCAA changes its mind.