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Judge: Mooseheart kids can play hoops — for now

Mooseheart executive director Scott Hart talks Makur Puou last seasbefore press conference after IHSA ruled ththree Mooseheart players including Puou

Mooseheart executive director Scott Hart talks to Makur Puou last season before a press conference after the IHSA ruled that three Mooseheart players, including Puou, were allowed to play. | Sun-Times Media File

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:47AM

Three Mooseheart students from Sudan will be able to play for the Mooseheart basketball team, at least temporarily.

Kane County Judge Dave Akemann ruled Tuesday that the Illinois High School Association cannot make the three players ineligible before a hearing with the state’s governing athletic body set for next Monday.

The students — Mangisto Deng; Akim Nyang, and Makur Puou — all came to Mooseheart from Sudan through a small organization called A-HOPE that places African children in American school and home settings.

A-HOPE Foundation, started by Mark Adams, has been placing promising student athletes in American schools across the country since 2003. A-HOPE stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. Several A-HOPE alumni are playing at Division I colleges.

The three students have played on the Mooseheart team in its first four games so far this season. A fourth Sudanese student, Wal Khat, competed on Mooseheart’s cross-country team and won a medal for finishing 24th in the state.

The IHSA declared the players ineligible last week, saying that Mooseheart had recruited them, and indicated that Mooseheart had acted incorrectly in doing so and could face IHSA sanctions.

In granting the restraining order sought by Mooseheart on Tuesday, Akemann said the IHSA constitution indicates it cannot prohibit the players from playing until the board has made a determination.

Right now, the only hearing was an informal one conducted over the telephone, and IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman made a decision based on that, Akemann said.

The Mooseheart situation came to the IHSA’s attention after inquiries from Hinckley-Big Rock High School about players from A-HOPE in general. But Mooseheart officials questioned the relationship between the IHSA ruling and Hinckley-Big Rock because of the timing of Hickman’s decision late last week. Mooseheart plays against Hinckley-Big Rock Wednesday night.

In a press release posted on its website, Mooseheart said the four boys were admitted to Mooseheart in May of 2011. The boys said they were interested in joining the cross country and basketball teams, and the school contacted the IHSA about the boys’ eligibility.

“The IHSA deliberated and notified Mooseheart of the 365-day transfer sit-out rule to comply with IHSA regulations,” the Mooseheart statement said. “After this time, the IHSA released all four young men as eligible to play interscholastic sports during the 2012-13 school year.”

In a news conference after Akemann’s ruling, Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart said they were “ecstatic” about the decision.

He said that more than 80 percent of Mooseheart children participate in athletics, and called it “a large part” of being at Mooseheart.

Hart said the Moose connection to Sudan began when Sudanese native and former National Basketball Association player Manute Bol, a Moose member, toured Mooseheart a few years back and talked with the students there.

Eventually, that led to A-HOPE contacting Mooseheart about the four students. A key part of the A-HOPE mission is that the students return to Sudan and help their country.

“Being an educated man there is prized,” said Gary Urwiler, Mooseheart school superintendent. “They will go back to their country educated.”

Puou, 18, appeared at the news conference and said he hopes to use his experience at Mooseheart to go to college.

“My goal is to get a good education and go back to Sudan and help my family,” he said.

Hart said Mooseheart officials are “confident” they have a good case to present to the IHSA board Monday. But he added that Mooseheart is ready to accept the IHSA decision if it goes against them.

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