By Trevor Bach
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By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
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"C'mon, rebound!" shouts Lorena Morrison. "Let's get that ball! Defense! Let's go, Victors!" Morrison is a short woman, athletic-looking in jeans, a polo shirt, and running shoes as bright and white as her hair color. She is the head administrator of the Miami Christian Academy, a small school located in a residential neighborhood just north of Sweetwater. When she roots for her school's basketball team, she does so with as much energy as the fifteen-year-olds fidgeting in the bleachers beside her. "Okay, Victors," she cries, "get that ball back!"
Guard Kelly Ortiz dribbles upcourt, bouncing the ball on the school logo of a knight mounted on a horse. With a smooth behind-the-back pass, he forwards the ball to a teammate, who promptly launches an alley-oop pass to six-foot nine-inch forward Johan Rivera, who slams home a thunderous dunk. Miami Christian is easily dispatching tonight's opponent, ACE, Loring's school. Miami Christian head basketball coach Mitchell Means calmly watches the rout unfold. Sitting on the bench beside him is Art Alvarez, a businessman who volunteers his time as an assistant coach. Alvarez waves his knees open and closed anxiously, engrossed in the game.
Only 400 students attend Miami Christian, from kindergarten through high school. A full squad of three cheerleaders jumps and kicks after every Victors free throw. Two civilian girls bounce around behind the Miami Christian bench, waving a large Dominican Republic flag as if they were watching a soccer game at the Orange Bowl. A second blue, white, and red flag hangs from a side backboard, taped up by players on the team, most of whom transferred this season from their homes in the Dominican Republic. "The boys asked if they could put up a flag," Morrison reports. "We said as long as it isn't offensive, it was okay with us."
The Dominican flavor of the basketball team is a new ingredient at Miami Christian. Over the summer the team's entire starting roster, plus one reserve, transferred to the school near Sweetwater. Most of the athletes played for top Dominican club teams. Several of them also play for the Dominican junior national team. Three of them, Johan Rivera, Nelson Matias, and Carlos Morban, are among the best players in the state at any level.
In her complaint to the FHSAA, ACE principal Loring accused Miami Christian of tracking down the Dominicans. "The coach of Miami Christian made a very public 'recruiting trip' to the Dominican Republic this past summer, which resulted in the immigration of five Dominican young men, all of whom played on the Dominican National Team," Loring wrote.
Morrison adamantly refutes this charge. She insists her team's head coach, Mitchell Means, did not recruit the Dominicans. "Coach worked for us all summer, at our Bible camp," she says flatly. "He never took a vacation, so he did not and could not have traveled to the Dominican Republic." As further evidence of her claim, she explains that Means does not speak Spanish.
But Alvarez, the volunteer assistant coach, does speak the language. And according to sources familiar with the FHSAA investigation, he did travel to the Dominican Republic over the summer, and he did persuade the kids to attend his school.
Morrison denies this as well, and offers an alternate explanation for how the boys ended up at her school. "A man named Andrew from the Boys and Girls Club went around to different schools with the players, trying to find the best fit," she says. "We checked on them and decided that they fit best at Miami Christian, so we accepted them." She does not recall the last name of Andrew, nor can she provide any other details of the transaction. She said the decision to accept the Dominicans had nothing to do with their athletic gifts.
After Loring filed her complaint, FHSAA investigator Dan Boyd drove down to Miami to inspect the transcripts and birth certificates of the school's players. He determined that three Miami Christian starters had already used up their eligibility in the Dominican Republic. The players were suspended, and the team was stripped of all wins from the regular season. The Victors are playing in the district playoffs only because every school in Class 1A qualifies for the games. The three suspended players lounge on the bench in nylon sweat suits, looking bored as their backups cruise to an easy win.
"When we took these kids on, we knew we'd be scrutinized," Morrison says. "We tried to do everything right. We know that no matter what happens here, these kids still have potential. Hopefully the decision [by the FHSAA] won't hurt them too much. We love 'em. They're good kids."
Immediately after her players were suspended, Morrison hopped in her car and drove straight to Gainesville, unannounced, to plead her case before the FHSAA. She could not persuade the organization to rescind or even delay the penalties. "How can a state that is so international in makeup have its athletic association run by a group of men who are entirely encapsulated by the mentality that all foreign athletes should be kept out of the country?" she asks. "Is it right for a school to be penalized for giving the basic right of education, including athletics, to a few good internationals? Should those with the John Rocker mentality be allowed to govern our state's athletic association when our state's population is so international?"