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Teen, Illinois High School Association wrestling over sporting rules

GordTech wrestler Matthew Lyprepares wrestle St. Ignatius College Prep Chicago Ill. Friday January 11 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Gordon Tech wrestler Matthew Lyon prepares to wrestle at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, January 11, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:52AM

Some day the Illinois High School Association is going to learn that every square peg can’t be conveniently pounded into a round hole.

In the meantime, we bring you the case of Matthew Lyon, a Gordon Tech wrestler who won a temporary restraining order against the IHSA last week to allow him to compete as a fifth year senior.

U.S. District Judge John Darrah sided with Matthew’s attorney, Jacie Zolna, who argued the 18-year-old should be granted a waiver from IHSA rules limiting students to four years and eight semesters of athletic eligibility.

Zolna, who happens to be married to Matthew’s older sister, made the case that the IHSA should grant Matthew a fifth year as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Matthew was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in grade school and has been educated under an Individualized Education Plan to help him deal with his disability.

Matthew moved here from California in the spring of 2011 amid a tumultuous junior year in which he became academically ineligible second semester, stemming in large part from family problems. After enrolling at Gordon Tech that fall, he repeated his junior year.

Zolna says Matthew’s involvement in wrestling has been a major factor in getting him back on track academically and personally. He’s now pointed toward attending college next year after scoring 28 on the ACT.

With that in mind, they asked the IHSA to consider his situation and make an exception.

But the IHSA doesn’t like to make exceptions. Exceptions are messy. Exceptions require looking at student-athletes as individuals and possibly taking into account what’s in their best interest instead of what’s simplest to administer.

It’s so much easier to keep pounding all the square pegs into the round holes of its rule book, along with the triangular pegs and the oblong pegs and the hexagonal pegs—each of those pegs unfortunately being a teenage kid.

With the court case pending, IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman would not comment directly on Matthew’s situation, but said in a written statement that the four-year and eight-semester rules “are designed to level the playing field” and to discourage “redshirting” — the practice of holding a player out of competition for a year.

Now, do I think it’s possible that unscrupulous coaches could try to use fifth-year exceptions to, in effect, redshirt some high school athletes as we see in college—holding them out of competition for a year to gain an advantage? Absolutely.

What bothers me, though, is that the IHSA always seems to operate under the presumption that anyone seeking to go outside the four corners of its rules is trying to cheat.

We saw some of that same attitude in the case of those Sudanese basketball players a Mooseheart, who the IHSA initially ruled ineligible as foreign transfers before a whole lot of unwanted attention helped convince them to reconsider.

The rules of wrestling, in which opponents compete against others of the same weight, reduces the possibility of Matthew receiving an unfair competitive advantage. Also, he does not turn 19 until May, putting him well within the IHSA age limit of 20, and therefore no older than his oldest competition — if a year more experienced.

Matthew, who wrestles in the 170-pound weight class, enjoyed a solid if unspectacular season for Gordon Tech last year with a 21-18 record. He placed fourth in the Catholic League and second in regional competition to qualify for sectionals.

Matthew has continued to practice this season but had not wrestled in any meets before Friday while waiting for the IHSA and the court to rule on his case.

Gordon Tech wrestling coach Patrick Heffernan said Matthew remained a positive influence on the team while his eligibility was in doubt, practicing hard while helping to coach the freshman.

“He’s a great kid. He’s a tremendous leader,” Heffernan said.

Matthew told me wrestling was a big help in his adjusting to a new school in a new state and in keeping his grades up.

“Everyone on the team is so close,” he said.

Matthew’s lawsuit now goes before another federal judge who will decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction against the IHSA to allow him to continue to compete.

Separately, the IHSA and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan are engaged in dueling federal lawsuits over her efforts to allow full and equal access for students with disabilities to participate in all sports.

The IHSA has recently added programs for athletes with disabilities in cross country, bowling, swimming and track and field, which is progress.

In his first night back in competition Friday at a four-team meet at St. Ignatius with Austin and North Side Prep, Matthew pinned all three of his opponents in less than a minute each, prowling the mat between matches like a caged tiger in his orange Gordon Tech singlet.

Make that a very happy caged tiger.

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