Prep Sports

High school athletes transfer for a variety of reasons

HS journalism: It's not always about recruiting

Anu Dokun, exploding out of his stance during a blocking drill last August, picked West High School for athletics when h
Anu Dokun, exploding out of his stance during a blocking drill last August, picked West High School for athletics when his family moved to Iowa City from Memphis. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — It’s almost an unspeakable phrase in Iowa high school sports.

Transfer.

Whenever a student-athlete transfers to a new school, particularly without changing their residence, rumors and speculations inevitably begin to circulate. The word “transfer” itself conjures up accusations of recruiting and misconduct that can blemish the reputation of an athlete seeking a better opportunity at a once rival school.

More often than not, however, a student-athlete’s decision to transfer schools is the result of multiple factors. Coaching styles, college development or simply wanting a fresh start are all reasons for high school athletes to transfer to a new school.

Like most states, the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union do not grant immediate athletic eligibility for every student who transfers.

There are three main reasons student-athletes transfer to Iowa City West, each with their own nuances and regulations.

RELOCATION

West has been an attractive school for out-of-state and in-state transfers looking to better their academic and athletic careers for many years. The recent success of West’s athletics programs coupled with the high-achieving academic performance of its students has drawn athletes like senior Anu Dokun to wear the green and gold.

He played football and wrestled at West.

“We looked at the schools (in the Iowa City Community School District) and started touring a couple of them,” said Dokun, who is originally from Memphis. “For my thing, it was who had the best football team and West (had) been to the playoffs the last few years.”

For these students, transferring into West is a simple process. As long as the student’s family physically moves and relocates into the West attendance area and can complete the required eligibility checklist proving their residence, the student is immediately eligible for athletics.

This rule also applies to students already living in Iowa. If a student moves into the West attendance area, even if they previously lived as close as North Liberty or Solon, they are immediately eligible providing they can prove their family is “physically present in the district for the purpose of making a home and not solely for school or athletic purposes” as outlined in the IHSAA’s General Transfer Rule.

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In order to prove this, the family must provide documents such as new driver’s licenses and utility bills to substantiate their new place of residence.

OPEN ENROLLMENT

For students wishing to attend West without changing their place of residence, things can become a little more complicated.

Open enrollment is defined by the Iowa Department of Education as “a cost-free option by which parents/guardians residing in an Iowa district may enroll their children into another Iowa school district.”

Students who wish to open enroll must fill out an application detailing reasons for leaving the school district, which is sent to both the resident and receiving district’s superintendent.

If a student is approved to transfer without changing their place of residence, they still are ineligible for varsity athletics competition during the first 90 school days of enrollment at their new school. Assistant IHSAA director Todd Tharp stresses the state’s prioritization of student’s education over athletics as reason for this restriction.

“To us they are students first, that’s the most important part,” Tharp said. “If they are out looking for a school, we encourage that it should be for academic reasons.”

The ineligibility requirement also deters athletes from transferring on a whim, insuring any student transferring has a legitimate reason that outweighs the punishment of sitting for 90 days.

There is, however, a well-known loophole to this rule. For many athletes, avoiding the 90-day ineligibility period simply means transferring more than 90 days before the start of their athletic season.

Senior basketball player Even Brauns open enrolled at West in the spring of 2018 in order to be eligible for the start of the basketball season in the fall of 2018.

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“(My parents) didn’t even know there was a rule about sitting out or anything. They called the athletic department, and then I had to transfer in like two days,” Brauns said. “We weren’t planning to transfer until after my sophomore year was over and then we found out and I literally had two days to leave and get enrolled here.”

Brauns, a University of Belmont commit, felt his decision to transfer to West from Regina helped better prepare him for his college basketball career in the form of tougher competition and better talent development.

“I just felt like I wasn’t improving (at Regina) the way I felt I should,” Brauns said. “My parents just felt like kids on my (club basketball) team were getting better during the high school season, and I was kind of staying the same.”

With the open enrollment system in Iowa, athletes, especially highly-touted prospects like Brauns, can be recruited to play for any program in the state. While outcries from parents and coaches have been directed at the IHSAA regarding high school athletics recruitment, there is nothing stopping schools from recruiting student-athletes as outlined in the Iowa state code.

“There’s schools here in north central Iowa that put great, big huge billboards in other school (districts) to say ‘Hey, come to our school.’ That happens all the time,” Tharp said. “Any high school in the state of Iowa can recruit.”

While there are no restrictions against recruiting, there are major penalties for any athletics programs found giving undue influence to student-athletes from other schools.

“(Undue influence is) more along the lines of saying ... we’ll make sure we’ll get your parents both jobs, we’ll guarantee that you’re going to start for us,” Tharp said. “(Our focus) is not necessarily recruitment but more on undue influence.”

Tharp is fully aware of the apparent loophole within the open enrollment system, and personally calls for an extension of the ineligibility period to 180 school days, forcing athletes to sit out entire seasons before becoming eligible the following year.

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“If it was a whole calendar year then (athletes) would have to sit out all of those sports, and you would see how serious and really bad it is for these transfers,” Tharp said. “I know there are some athletic directors around the state that have that sentiment, and I think they feel that would stop a lot of issues.”

INTRADISTRICT TRANSFERS

While the state sets rules for athletes who transfer across school districts, those with multiple high schools are given the flexibility to adopt their own policy. As outlined in the IHSAA’s General Transfer Rule, “A school district that has more than one high school in its district shall set its own eligibility policies regarding intradistrict transfers.”

Until 2018, the ICCSD enacted harsher transfer policies than the state by requiring students who transferred between ICCSD high schools to sit out 180 days before competing in varsity athletics. Assistant ICCSD Superintendent Matt Degner and the rest of the secretary administrative team modified the rules last year to match the state’s policy of 90 days after recognizing the disadvantage for students transferring within the ICCSD.

“We just felt like that was a safer ground for us to be in,” Degner said. “In theory you would be punishing students in your own district a little bit more than kids coming from say Solon or West Branch. That didn’t feel right.”

While the state does not influence districts’ decisions on intradistrict transfer rules, most districts around the state adopt the 90 day policy to stay consistent when dealing with open enrollment.

“(The IHSAA) gives them the local control to decide how they want to determine how student-athletes can move from school to school,” Tharp said. “I think it’s pretty consistent that all of (the districts) follow the same rules of the state for the 90-day ineligibility requirement.”

West has been the primary recipient of most of the ICCSD’s intradistrict transfers this year, with eight varsity athletes across five different sports transferring to West from Liberty.

The volleyball team experienced a revolving door of transfers this year, adding sophomore Kearsten Lenth and junior Rylie Baldes from Liberty while also losing last year’s starting setter, senior Rylee Fay, to the Lightning.

While Lenth led the Women of Troy with 2.22 assists per set, Baldes was unable to compete this season due to the district’s policy regarding intradistrict transfers.

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“It was tough sitting out the whole season, not being able to help on the court,” Baldes said. “I’m looking forward to being able to play and be a leader next season.”

For Fay, the decision to leave West was not an easy one. Leaving friends and teammates behind was hard, but perhaps the biggest deterrent was the stigma that came with being labeled a “transfer.”

“I’ve seen the hate others had gotten for transferring, and I was scared that would happen to me,” Fay said.

Aside from Liberty’s successful volleyball program, Fay also cited smaller class sizes and a familiarity with the Lighting’s head coach, Randy Dolson, who coached her as a freshman at West, as reasons she made the switch.

“For those who didn’t know the real reasons and just assumed it was just for volleyball, there were many reasons why I (transferred),” Fay said. “Liberty was just a better fit for me.”

If spring sports are played this year, boys’ soccer fans can expect a fresh face up top for the Trojans. Liberty transfer Kolby Godbolt, a junior, hopes to work his way into the star-studded West lineup. Godbolt led the Lightning in goals scored and assists last season, but decided to transfer to West to better develop his skills in the hopes of playing collegiately.

Godbolt initially intended to transfer during the middle of his sophomore year, but decided to wait until his junior year after realizing he would be forced to sit out for over half of the soccer season due to the district’s 90-day ineligibility requirement.

Similar to Fay, Godbolt felt some hostility from former teammates but feels the decision is best for both his soccer career and overall well-being.

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“I think I just did what’s best for me,” Godbolt said. “Their opinion doesn’t really matter; I just wanted to be happy. I felt like West was a good fit for me, and I enjoyed being here.”

IN THE FUTURE

West has certainly benefited from transfer athletes in the past, and with growing knowledge of the process more student-athletes could be coming to play for the Trojans in the years to come.

“Nowadays people live in this information age where people know more. They know the policy and they know about individual schools and individual coaches,” West High athletics director Craig Huegel said. “We can’t do anything about the policy whether we like it or dislike it, but we try to provide the most positive experience possible for (our athletes).”

As more information about coaches and programs become available, parents seeking the best path to athletic success will inevitably begin scrambling for transfer requests.

While transferring for athletic purposes is nearly always permitted, and oftentimes warranted, Degner still feels the integrity of high school athletics would be better kept if students remained at their home schools unless absolutely necessary.

“Anytime you have a policy, there’s a spirit behind the policy. We don’t want the primary driver to change campuses to be around athletics,” Degner said. “We have full-slated athletic programs at every building, we have all kinds of extracurricular activities that we feel like if you’re changing campuses there should be a more compelling reason than just an athletic program.”

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