After 88-point rout, girls' high school basketball rematch focuses on sportsmanship

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Two Connecticut high school girls' basketball teams that played to a 92-4 final score in early January face each other again Friday night, with conference and school administrators making it clear that sportsmanship and how this game is played are paramount.

Al Carbone, commissioner of the Southern Connecticut Conference, told ESPN that the outcome of the first game between Sacred Heart Academy and Lyman Hall was excessive. Sacred Heart Academy, a Catholic prep school in Hamden, shut out Lyman Hall, a public school in Wallingford, 29-0 after the first quarter, 56-0 by halftime and 80-0 after three periods.

After the game, Sacred Heart released a statement saying what transpired in the win didn't align with the school's "values or philosophies." Sacred Heart then suspended coach Jason Kirck for one game.

Carbone told ESPN that he doesn't want to see it happen again. After the first game Jan. 3, he said he gathered information from both schools and watched video of the matchup. Carbone confirmed that Sacred Heart called off its press before halftime but continued to put pressure on Lyman Hall.

"Every [high school] coach in every sport is on the clock," Carbone said. "They better be cognizant of this during the heat of battle. Every coach -- every school -- has to have had a discussion about this. What would you do in this situation?"

It's a question that has faced youth sports coaches and players across the country for generations. Mismatched opponents square off every year in a variety of sports in all age groups, with outcomes that can leave players, parents, coaches and administrators wondering what to say, what to do and how to handle the next game or mismatch. As a coach, do you alter how your team plays, and if so how much? Do you tell players to hold back? What message does that send? Do you go with a running clock? Do you advocate for a mercy rule?

What does sportsmanship dictate?

There also are questions for players on both sides of a lopsided score about what has been learned from the experience and how to approach the next game. But in the case of Sacred Heart and Lyman Hall, those questions remain unanswered.

"To be honest," Lyman Hall athletic director Steve Baker said by phone, "we were hoping this all would go away."

Baker said media will not be allowed at the rematch. He declined to make Lyman's coach, Tom Lipka, available for an interview with ESPN. He didn't want anyone talking to players, either. He said it was in their best interest. (Lipka did email the following to The Hartford Courant for a story that published the day after the Jan. 3 game: "Sacred Heart pressed for most of the first half then called it off and went into a tight man-to-man defense trying to get steals. They fast-breaked the entire game right to the end. They never went into a zone and continued to push the ball up the court and shoot threes whenever they could. They showed no mercy throughout.")

When reached by phone, Sacred Heart athletic director Ray Degnan declined to comment. He said his school was deferring to Lyman Hall on whether to make anyone else available to talk. Kirck did comment on how he handled it to CT Insider earlier this month, saying he was "deeply regretful" and that he had "already made changes in our system to prevent any future errors in sportsmanship."

Carbone noticed a deluge of messages during that first game -- a game that eventually would make national headlines. They piled up in the ensuing 24 hours. "Hundreds," he said.

The response to the outcome had been swift and sometimes harsh. Jeff Jacobs, a longtime Connecticut columnist, tweeted that he wanted to puke. The New York Times wrote that the score "might have even made Bobby Knight blanch." Social media wasn't measured, but it was divided. Facebook comments under the Jan. 4 Courant story included some calling for Kirck to be fired and others lamenting the degradation of a "weak" society. The Courant ended an editorial by saying the game "needs to serve as an example to adults and students alike that winning isn't everything."

Connecticut is one of at least 10 states that do not have a basketball mercy rule -- which often includes a running clock -- according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The NFHS cited a 2019 survey in which 42 states responded. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC), the state's high school sports governing body, released a statement that read in part: "The CIAC promotes safety and sportsmanship above all else for our member schools."

Matt Howell, athletic director at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino, California, rarely missed a game. But in early January 2015, he was in Las Vegas during a holiday break. He got a call at halftime from his coach, Michael Anderson, who said the girls' basketball game against Bloomington, a school from a neighboring town, had gotten out of hand.

"He was trying to do everything that he could," Howell said.

Howell said Arroyo liked to press and run, and Bloomington was shooting -- and missing -- a few seconds into its possessions. It was a bad combination. By halftime, Arroyo called off the press -- even sitting back in a relaxed 2-3 zone -- but not its fast break. The game ended 161-2.

"One, that's not the way we play," Howell said, addressing the thought that his team could have turned down transition opportunities. "That's not the way the game is supposed to be played. And, ultimately, it's more embarrassing when you dribble in for a layup [but don't attempt it] ... and then you dribble it out and set up in your offense."

Howell, who was a coach before he became an athletic director, said he is fundamentally opposed to essentially telling players that they can't play. He's not alone. Micah Grimes, a Texas high school girls' basketball coach, was fired in January 2009 for what transpired in a 100-0 victory. The day he was fired he emailed the Dallas Morning News, refusing to apologize and saying his team "played with honor and integrity." And as recently as 2019, a high school football coach on Long Island was suspended pursuant to his county's "lopsided scores policy." The game between two unbeaten teams ended 61-13.

Evelyn Clark Benavides, chair of the sociology department at SUNY-Oswego, said this all could be traced to the origin of sportsmanship, a centuries-old concept that separated so-called gentlemen's sports, such as cricket, from others, like boxing. That ethic was born in the U.K., but an opposition to it is baked into Americana. Success breeds money; winners become heroes and, in some cases, celebrities.

"We do not like losers. We do not like victims," Clark Benavides said. "We do not like people who don't succeed. We certainly don't respect people who might complain about it."

Howell said the blowback against Arroyo didn't begin until a few days after its rout. Photos of the scoreboard circulated locally and accompanied stories in the local paper. It snowballed and, before Howell knew it, then-ESPN personality Colin Cowherd was talking about it.

Howell, who acknowledged that some things could have been done differently, said there is no justification for the final score in the game against Bloomington seven years ago -- even if he believed there wasn't malice intended. He said subsequent games, even if there was a gap in talent, never got that bad. Arroyo even suspended its coach for two games. After that suspension, Arroyo's critics were joined by supporters. The comment section had come to life.

Why, then, did Arroyo suspend its coach if it wasn't settled that he had done anything wrong?

"We wanted to move on," he said. "There was such a public outcry for something to be done. This would probably take the heat off."

A week after Sacred Heart's home win against Lyman Hall, Notre Dame High School of West Haven, Connecticut, won its boys' basketball game 86-10 against New Haven's Career High School. The girls' and boys' games took place 7 miles apart, but the reactions to them couldn't have been more disparate. After Notre Dame's win, there were no blaring headlines and no suspensions.

Carbone, the conference commissioner, said that in his 18 years at the helm, he hasn't seen a difference between boys' and girls' sports in the reactions to blowouts or routs. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Any sport or gender, it could happen at any time."

Clark Benavides, who contributed a chapter about gender and sportsmanship to a book about the latter, said successful women in sports long have faced scrutiny, forcing them to address their sexuality and prove their gender, if they are too powerful. Could that have contributed to the response after the Sacred Heart-Lyman Hall game? Clark Benavides said it's hard to say.

Notre Dame coach Jason Shea happens to be a close friend of Jason Kirck, the suspended Sacred Heart coach. Kirck had been an assistant under Shea for six years and alongside him for six more, all at Notre Dame. Shea said his boys team held an opponent to five points at halftime of a game it eventually won 70-30. Kirck's girls' team won another game 57-19.

Neither caused the same stir.

"The fact that his game [vs. Lyman Hall] became such a story," Shea said. "It's in the back of your mind, but we know we're doing a lot of things to keep the game close. I know [Kirck] did some things at his game that [kept the game close]. [The Sacred Heart-Lyman Hall game] could have potentially been a lot worse. I think [Kirck] will acknowledge, maybe he just did it a little bit later than he would've wanted to. But it's hard. It's not easy to manage those games."

You have bench players who don't often play who want their chance to shine. Telling those players to ease up is tricky. But coaches can switch defenses, dress more players and even run through purposeful offensive sets before shooting. Those were all suggestions from other coaches who chimed in. And it seems everyone has chimed in.

But when the disparity in talent is stark -- Sacred Heart is ranked eighth in the state; Lyman Hall is 2-11 this season, according to MaxPreps -- where do you draw the line between competition and sportsmanship, between competitiveness and embarrassment? In the case of those two teams, and their upcoming rematch, the line has been drawn for them.

"Do I think the next time that they'll play, it'll be 88-point margin?" Carbone said. "No, there's not going to be.

"I think everyone knows that."