Mar 26, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
All through the autumn and winter, Westhill High School senior Juan Carlos Pena wondered if he would get a chance to play baseball this spring.
Monday, just a week before the season beganhe got his answer – and it was good news.
State Supreme Court justice James P. Murphy issued a 17-page decision nullifying Section III’s original rulings late last year that Pena had used up his high-school eligibility and could not play in 2013 for the Warriors.
As a result, Pena was able to practice on Monday with his Westhill teammates for the first time. He will need to participate in 10 practices before he can enter a game.
That will not take place until the end of the Warriors’ annual spring-break trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Westhill opens its season there with five games before returning to Central New York, where, weather and field conditions permitting, it will begin league play April 9 against Hannibal.
The controversy surrounding Pena has simmered for months. Section III had originally ruled that Pena had used up his four years of high school eligibility while shuttling between New Jersey, his parents’ home in the Dominican Republic and, eventually, Westhill.
Four years ago, in the spring of 2009, Pena was a freshman at a high school in Perth Amboy, N.J. Then his mother, who had lost her job, was forced to move back to the Dominican Republic, and Pena went with her, attending a school there that did not offer scholastic sports.
A series of events that included treatment for depression and a custody battle led to Pena leaving his mother and moving with his uncle, Kevin Bedel, to Central New York. He enrolled at Westhill early in 2011, but was behind enough in his academics that he had to repeat his sophomore year if he wanted to graduate.
Eventually, Pena’s academics improved and he joined the baseball team at Westhill. There, he quickly became a standout at shortstop, at the plate and in the field.
In 2012, his junior year at the school, Pena batted .469, scored 28 runs, stole 23 bases and earned 15 RBIs. He also pitched in relief, all of which helped Westhill win its third Section III Class B title in four years. It drew the attention of Major League Baseball scouts and the University of Iowa, who off
That, said Section III, was the end of Pena’s eligibility, because he had started his four-year high school cycle back when he was a freshman in Perth Amboy in 2008-09, regardless of the personal reasons surrounding his subsequent moves. In this, the section was following rules set decades ago by the New York Education commissioner and followed by the state Board of Regents.
Trying to fight the rulings, Pena and Bedel first petitioned Section III for another year of eligibility last October. A month later, the Section denied the request, and then rejected Pena’s appeal again in December despite further evidence brought forward by the Westhill School District.
From there, Pena appealed to the State Supreme Court. In a hearing before Judge Murphy last Thursday, Danny Mevec, Pena’s attorney, argued that the circumstances of Pena’s odyssey created a unique situation that the section needed to acknowledge, rather than stick to hard and fast rules.
In response, the section’s attorney, John McGowan, joined in court by Renee James, an attorney with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, argued for the four years of eligibility, saying that only extreme instances of illness or injury called for an exception.
Four days later, Murphy issued his decision. He said, essentially, that Section III did not follow the guidelines of the state education commission, which does allows an exception to the four-year eligibility rule for “circumstances beyond the control of the student”.
This, in Murphy’s opinion, clearly applied to Pena, for reasons that included the sudden move from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and his discovery, upon returning to the United States, that he needed another year of high school in order to earn his diploma.
Though Murphy, in the same decision, rejected a claim on Pena’s behalf that his bout with manic depression also warraned another year of eligibility, he still reversed Section III’s judgment. And so Pena, in addition to being on track to graduate in June, will also get to take the field again.