By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
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Rewards followed, both personal and institutional. Pujol was named Class 1A coach of the year. Northwest Christian received a coveted sponsorship from Nike. Champagnat's head coach, Rolando de la Barrera, who in five years had taken his program from startup to two straight state title games, accepted the head coaching job at Berkshire Academy in Homestead. Unlike Champagnat, Berkshire is a boarding school, and de la Barrera promptly filled the dorms with top foreign students. According to the FHSAA, he acquired most of them from an exchange-student agent named Julie Zapata Lyon.
"For a price she brings in athletes from outside the U.S.," Dan Boyd explains, "athletes who need the visibility, the exposure, so they can compete for college scholarships in the U.S. I don't blame the kids for this. A lot of these kids are coming out of terrible environments. Playing sports in the U.S. would be a dream come true for them. But for somebody to be recruiting and placing a large number of athletes at one school, like we saw at Berkshire, kind of leaves me hollow. I start wondering: Where is fair play and sportsmanship and all these virtues we all subscribe to?"
According to records on file in Minnesota, Zapata Lyon is the proprietor of Lyon International Student Exchange, a nonprofit company. No other public records are available detailing the nature of her business. Calls to her home in Plymouth, Minnesota, and e-mail messages left for her were not returned. But earlier this season, at a basketball game on the Berkshire campus, Lyon handed her business card to the Academy for Community Education's athletic director, who promptly turned it over to Andrea Loring. "I called her as a principal," Loring recalls. "I asked her what services she provides for schools. She told me that she was in the business of helping schools fill positions on their athletic teams, and for a fee she would help me to fill any position that I needed. She told me in return I'd be expected to waive tuition and waive all fees. She didn't realize that I run a public school.
"She did not say she only worked with athletes," Loring continues. "I don't want to be unfair to her. But she didn't say otherwise, either. I told her I'd received her card from my athletic director. Then we only discussed transfer students in terms of my athletic program. She certainly had plenty to say about how she could help me recruit some athletes for a flat fee of $2000 a student. She said she'd be more than happy to help me. She said she would provide the proper records, transcripts, and such. She mentioned that she'd worked with Berkshire and with the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne."
The FHSAA, as part of the investigation of Berkshire, documented Lyon's role in steering the foreign students to the school. The eight students she was involved with were declared ineligible to play for the boys' team. (Four more students were deemed ineligible for the girls' team.) "These are students who were brought to that school for the express purpose of playing basketball and winning state championship trophies at the expense of, and without regard for, every other school in Berkshire's classification," declared FHSAA commissioner Robert W. Hughes when he banned Berkshire from this year's state playoffs.
Berkshire principal L.R. Farrell disagrees with the FHSAA's conclusions. "We did not recruit," he declares. "[Zapata Lyon] has nothing to do with the operation of the school other than she picked up information from my advertisements in Europe, in the U.S., in Homestead, and elsewhere. What this means, I assume, is every private school that has a residential program now cannot take in students."
In apparent retaliation for Loring's complaint, Farrell filed a countercomplaint with the FHSAA alleging athletic shenanigans at ACE. "Since the mid-1990s inclusion of opportunity schools in the lower division of the FHSAA, Ace Academy [sic] has thrived where others have not," wrote Farrell in his February 15 complaint. "While only able to attract a supposedly small population because of their admission criteria, they have produced successful basketball teams every single year. [Other alternative public high schools have] not. What makes [ACE] Academy so different? Simple, they recruit, play kids beyond their eligibility, and admit students to the school who do not meet the criteria."
Farrell proceeded to list five vague or dated complaints, such as: "It is not uncommon for the [ACE] Academy to falsify reports concerning grades and amount of years their students have played varsity sports.
"In summary [ACE] Academy for years and with the knowledge of many member schools have [sic] broken many of the FHSAA bylaws but they have won and advanced. Today [ACE] because of new rules regarding GPAs has difficulty recruiting eligible students and they are not as prosperous. Now it's time to mudsling and go after whoever is successful! ...[ACE] has always been corrupt and they desire to win again. Just because someone screams the loudest does not make his or her message the right one."
The FHSAA is still investigating ACE as well as Gettysburg Academy, a school scrutinized also at Farrell's request. "We're getting the cooperation from ACE that we would expect, and I haven't seen anything that has set off any alarms," says Boyd. "The same for Gettysburg."