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(from left) Akim Nyang,17, Mangisto Deng,18, and Makur Puou,18, all play for the Mooseheart High School basketball team. They practiced Friday Dec. 7, 2012 | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Play on, Illinois High School Association officials told four Sudanese students at Mooseheart on Monday.

Hearing from the youngsters themselves — including basketball players 7-foot-1 Hakim Nyang, 6-10 Makur Puou and 6-7 Mangisto Deng — was probably the key factor in convincing the IHSA Board of Directors to unanimously reverse Executive Director Marty Hickman’s November ruling declaring them ineligible.

Last week, Mooseheart officials went to court in Kane County and were successful in getting a temporary restraining order, lifting the ruling.

“It was really good to hear from the young men themselves,” Hickman said in a teleconference with reporters following the afternoon hearing and subsequent vote by the board, which is comprised of Illinois high school principals.

“I have no problem with (the reversal). I think we have a great process. We learned some things we didn’t know earlier and had actually asked to talk with them earlier but the school didn’t provide them to us.”

The board learned the youngsters from the war-torn region were serious about getting an education and eventually returning to their native country to help improve conditions there, said IHSA Board President and Wauconda High School Principal Dan Klett.

But the directors did find that the Bloomington, Ind.-based A-Hope Foundation that helped placed them took advantage of the youths, and that any IHSA school accepting referrals of students from A-Hope or any other organization “having as its purpose the placement of student athletes in educational settings, shall be presumptively ineligible.”

The directors also placed Mooseheart on probation and outlined a three-step compliance plan it must complete before the basketball team will be eligible to compete in this year’s postseason playoffs.

“We’ve had these kinds of compliance plans before and it’s a matter of effort and energy (on the part of the school),” Hickman said. “I would think that they could have it in place in a period of two to six weeks, which would be plenty of time to take part in the state series.”
Hickman needs to approve the plan.

The fourth athlete, 6-4 cross country/track runner Wal Khat — who earned all-state honors by placing 24th at the state cross country meet this fall — will not have to forfeit his medal, Hickman said.

All four students came to Mooseheart in 2011 and sat out a year as directed by IHSA officials before originally becoming eligible. On Monday, Klett said the organization at that time did not know the A-Hope Foundation was involved in placing the students.

A-Hope founder Mark Adams also runs a successful AAU basketball program based in Bloomington and has placed close to 30 athletes in various prep schools and colleges since it was started in 2003.

On its website, the foundation professes to be an organization that “finds educational opportunities in the Unites States for deserving student athletes from across Africa ages 14 through 19 years of age.”

“But they’re not helping the kid who is 5-2 or ladies,” noted Klett. “It’s something we do not want to encourage in the IHSA.”

The Mooseheart students departed after the hearing and the basketball players joined their teammates for a Little Ten Conference game in Kirkland at Hiawatha High School.

“Obviously, we at Mooseheart Child City & School are very pleased by the fact that the Illinois High School Association Board has seen fit to let our four student athletes continue to compete interscholastically for the remainder of their high school careers, through the spring of 2014,” Kurt Wehrmeister, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the school said in a statement released to the press.

He said Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart had proceeded to the game in Kirkland and would be available for comment afterward.

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