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Thursday, December 17, 2009
Top-ranked team won't 'win' City of Palms

By Ronnie Flores

The nation's top-ranked boys' basketball team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 could very well come out of the holiday tournament season unbeaten, but we already know Findlay Prep won't be in the championship game at the prestigious City of Palms Classic, set for Wednesday, Dec. 23 (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).

As the defending FAB 50 national champions and winners of the inaugural National High School Invitational, the Pilots were a natural fit for this year's City of Palms Classic. But their participation comes with wrinkles.

Michael Peck
Even if Findlay Prep wins its City of Palms Classic opener, coach Michael Peck's top-ranked Pilots will continue on in the tournament's consolation bracket.

During the third week of September, long-time tournament director Donnie Wilkie received a phone call from the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) letting him know that one of its member schools, FAB 50 No. 6 Westchester (Los Angeles, Calif.), is not allowed to play Findlay Prep.

According to Wilkie, the Pilots are also not allowed to play No. 11 Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.), a member school of the Georgia High School Association. Wilkie knew about the situation regarding Milton, but he said that in the last two weeks the CIF required him to submit a formal letter stating that Westchester would not face Findlay Prep under any circumstances.

The state CIF confirmed that Westchester, the defending CIF Div. I state champ, could not play the Pilots because the program is not sanctioned by the Nevada Interscholastic Athletics Association or the National Federation of State High School Associations.

"This is a state CIF level issue," said Trenton Cornelius, CIF L.A. City Section Assistant Commissioner. "We don't allow member schools to play a non-member school."

California schools have been allowed to play affiliate schools such as nationally renowned Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), a school that is accredited by the Virginia Association of Independent Schools and approved by the Virginia Department of Education. Oak Hill, the No. 3 team in the FAB 50, will not participate at Wilkie's event and does not have any California teams on its schedule. The Warriors, however, could meet up with Westchester at the Les Schwab Invitational in Portland, Ore. (Dec. 26-30).

"Sure," was CIF Southern Section communications director Thom Simmons' comment if CIF Southern Section schools could play Oak Hill. "They would be allowed because Oak Hill is an affiliate member. Findlay Prep is just a basketball team. There is no school called Findlay Prep."

Former UNLV forward and Las Vegas auto mogul Cliff Findlay funds the Pilots' program, and the Henderson International School -- which the players attend -- has its own athletic teams. The Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association has allowed the Pilots to schedule NIAA member schools the past two seasons. This past weekend, defending Class 4A state champion Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.) opened its season against head coach Michael Peck's club.

Ed Azzam
Where does Westchester coach Ed Azzam stand on all this? "We look forward to playing the best competition," he said. "We're just trying to get better in order to play our best ball at the end of the year."

"We answer to the NIAA and we do follow some of their guidelines," Findlay Prep associate head coach Todd Simon said. "We follow the age and academic requirements, too. We can't get into another event, so win or lose (at the City of Palms), we don't have much of an option."

Wilkie applauded Findlay Prep's decision to remain in the tournament and stated it was the "responsible approach," as was the decision not to chance a Westchester-Findlay Prep meeting in the winner's bracket and a potential situation where a loser advanced in place of the Pilots.

"This situation is not unprecedented," Wilkie said. "We had this same problem before when Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington were at Episcopal Academy (Pa.). We rolled the dice ... both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds lost in the first round and Episcopal fell neatly in the fifth-place bracket. I don't want people to say, 'that ol' Wilkie messed up the tournament.' I want them to know up front how it got messed up."

Wilkie and the Pilots' coaching staff tried to come up with the best alternative, and Wilkie decided to bracket the nation's No. 1 team against No. 25 Winter Park (Winter Park, Fla.) in a showcase game. Win or lose, the Pilots will be in the consolation bracket.

Simon is more worried about the possible negative attention the situation might bring to the program and its players than he is about the team advancing in the winners' bracket.

"Win or lose, our players have to answer questions about it left and right," Simon said. "What if Westchester loses, too? It makes it look like our kids did something wrong."