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Chicago-area high school fights benching of varsity basketball starters

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A Chicago suburban school is fighting the Illinois High School Association for benching four of their starting players on the varsity basketball team.

Mooseheart Child City and School in Batavia provides housing and education for children in need from around the world. They are the largest child care facility in Illinois with 203 students currently enrolled. 

Officials said the school broke IHSA guidelines by recruiting four Sudanese boys to come to Mooseheart for the sole purpose of playing on their basketball team.

Mooseheart denies ever recruiting the boys to play sports and maintains their mission is to help children in need.

“Do they have some God-given talents athletically? Yes they do,” said executive director for Mooseheart School, Scott Hart. “But over 80 percent of our student body participates in athletics, so for them to come in and be on a sports team, that’s the norm at Mooseheart.”

Six-foot-7-inch Mangisto Deng, 7-footer Akim Nyang, 6-foot-8-inch Makur Puou and 6-feet-4-inch Wal Khat, came to Mooseheart in May 2011.

“One of the students, the first morning they were here at Mooseheart got up early in the morning and literally thought that he had to walk down to our lake to draw water for the house,” Hart said. “Never being able to understand indoor plumbing and how that works or electricity or to see a vacuum for the first time, these students certainly fell right into our mission.”

Makur Puou is a junior at Mooseheart. (Courtesy Mooseheart)

The IHSA ruled the boys were ineligible to participate in athletics during the 2011-2012 school year, their sophomore year, under the transfer eligibility requirements.

Hart said, despite following those guidelines, the IHSA had been conducting a secret investigation of the boys for months.

In March, after the IHSA started probing the school about student visas, Hart said the school asked them if Mooseheart was being investigated and if they could help in anyway.

“Their comment all along was no, there was no ongoing investigation, we’re just simply looking to gather information on F1 (visa) students coming into the United States,” Hart said.

Mooseheart later received a letter from the IHSA on November 5 stating that based on an investigation, the four Sudanese students had been deemed ineligible to participate in athletics.

“We were very surprised, totally caught off guard, not even knowing there was an investigation into the students eligibility” Hart said.

Now the boys face being stripped of all their past athletic accomplishments.

“And when I told Wal that he may indeed have to give up his medals that he rightfully earned, his only response to me was just to look at the floor,” Hart said. “He told me, 'Mr. Hart, I’m sorry.'”

Kane County Court Judge Ernest Akemann ruled today that the boys can continue playing on the basketball team and said the IHSA owed Mooseheart a hearing before the penalty is imposed.

Both parties are expected to be in court on Monday.

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