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'Small victory' for Mooseheart players

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 10:10 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — The shouts that erupted from the Mooseheart basketball team's meeting room about 4 p.m. Tuesday meant welcome news: the hoop dreams of three Sudanese boys will continue for a few more days.

Kane County Judge David Akemann made that ruling in the courthouse a few miles down the road from the Batavia residential school for children from unstable backgrounds.

Last week, the executive director of the state's high school athletic governing agency decided that the three players — all 6 foot 7 inches and above — were ineligible to play basketball for the school's team. His reason was that Mooseheart purportedly had tried to induce the students to enroll for athletic purposes, a violation of the Illinois High School Association bylaws.

Mooseheart challenged the decision in court, asking Akemann to continue to allow the athletes — Mangisto Deng, Akim Nyang and Makur Puou — to play for the Red Ramblers.

"I'm happy to play tonight," Puou said after the judge's decision as he stared nervously at a bank of TV cameras and news reporters at the school.

He added that he came to the United States to play basketball and "get a good education so I can be successful and go back to help my country."

A few hours later, Puou and his teammates played Westminster Christian High School of Elgin. The Red Ramblers won the home contest 53-21.

As distracting as Monday and Tuesday had been, the team seemed energized by Tuesday's ruling.

So did the estimated 300 fans who attended the game. When Puou dunked at the end of a fast break to make it a 19-3 lead early in the game, the room exploded with cheers. He followed that with another dunk a few seconds later, and the walls seemed to throb.

During the court hearing in Geneva, Mooseheart attorney Peter Rush contended that the organization historically has brought kids from all over the world from unstable, even dangerous surroundings to the campus near the banks of the Fox River. Their athletic prowess doesn't matter, Rush said.

Mooseheart took the same approach in these teens' cases and needed to air all the details at a formal hearing with the IHSA board.

Akemann agreed, saying both sides in the case are making accusations that the impartial, full board can assess after all the evidence is presented, then make a formal ruling on the boys' eligibility. Meanwhile, preventing the athletes from playing — the IHSA already had allowed them to play in four games this year — would inflict harm on them, the judge said.

The IHSA meeting is set for Monday in Bloomington.

"We are respectful of Judge Akemann's decision, though we are disappointed in his view of how our membership's rules are to be applied," said IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman in a prepared statement.

When word of the favorable ruling reached Mooseheart basketball coach Ron Ahrens, he called his varsity to the meeting room to break the news. They let out a roar that echoed throughout the field house, said team manager Aaron Moka.

Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart said the Sudanese students "are considered brothers" to the estimated 112 students at the high school.

"To have this small victory is a great day for Mooseheart and for them," Hart said of the African teens. "It's important for them to be with their brothers."

Rush said he is confident Mooseheart can prevail at the full IHSA board hearing.

"This school had nothing to do with recruiting any student-athletes," he said. "Its 100-year history is proof in and of itself. This is a transparent organization that has no fear of the facts. None whatsoever."

An Indiana organization helped place the Sudanese students at Mooseheart. The group, African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education, or A-HOPE, previously had sent the school a Sudanese basketball player, who was declared ineligible by the IHSA.

The Red Ramblers play again Wednesday at Hinckley-Big Rock High School, a game that holds the potential for dramatic tension

Hinckley-Big Rock, considered an area powerhouse, sparked the IHSA investigation by contacting the organization in March with concerns over the Sudanese students' placement at Mooseheart.

"It was never the intent of the Hinckley-Big Rock School District to attack the student-athletes or Mooseheart," the district said in a prepared statement.

"Our only intent was in gathering information about the A-HOPE program and the basis for participation in IHSA sanctioned events and activities."

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