Gardner banned from winter tournaments

An unprecedented chain of events came to a close on Thursday, as Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke returned a high school swimming trophy to the headquarters of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

On Wednesday, the MIAA placed sanctions on Gardner High, when the governing body’s Board of Directors voted to disqualify the school’s winter sports teams from participating in postseason tournaments. The decision stemmed from an October MIAA ruling, when Gardner was forced to relinquish its 2012 girls’ swimming sectional championship trophy. When school officials failed to return the trophy leading into Wednesday’s Board meeting, the MIAA reacted by taking what spokesman Paul Wetzel says is a measure without comparison.

“We have banned an individual team in a particular sport [from competing in the postseason],” Wetzel said Thursday, “but I don’t think it’s ever happened for an entire school.”

The MIAA had also iterated that – if the trophy was not returned by March 5 -- Gardner’s spring sports eligibility would be pulled and the school’s membership renewal would not be accepted for the 2013-14 academic year.

As Hawke returned the trophy in question, Wetzel confirmed that no further sanctions will be levied upon Gardner’s program. However, Wetzel also told ESPN Boston that Gardner’s intended appeal about its postseason ban is not available under MIAA bylaws.

“They’re out of their appeals options,” Wetzel said.

The 2012 girls’ swimming sectional title in question will be vacated. Gardner was stripped of the title in October, when the MIAA found the girls’ swimming team and former coach Don Lemieux might have violated its “bona fide team” policy, after team members allegedly skipped team practices for club team activities.

Following the return of the sectional trophy Thursday, Hawke – who also serves as chairman of the Gardner School Committee in his duties as Mayor – told Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette that he “wasn’t aware” there was a deadline for the trophy to be returned.

Wetzel maintains that after setting a date of Nov. 26 for the trophy’s return, the MIAA was not notified of Gardner’s intentions not to comply.

“It’s really sad, but they never said why they didn’t go along with it,” he added.

Now, Gardners’ basketball, hockey, indoor track and field and swimming teams will watch the playoff tournaments unfold as spectators.

“It’s unfortunate for the student-athletes, but under our system, the school was found to be in violation,” Wetzel said. “The school defied the board and the association, which meant the whole school was now in violation. The school, as a whole, was not in compliance. It’s a byproduct of the action of their leadership.”