By EDDIE CELAYA
The Pima Community College men’s soccer team was the victim of a bench-clearing brawl, resulting in its elimination from the post season and leaving the athletic department to deal with a situation worthy of its own Netflix series.
A press conference was held in the West Campus Creative Writing Center to deal with the fallout after the Arizona Community College Athletic Association championship game.
PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert led off the news conference by thanking the players and head coach Dave Cosgrove for their demeanor during the incident and throughout the season.
“I want to thank all the players for the outstanding season you delivered not only for yourselves and this college but for this community, it was outstanding,” he said, to the applause of parents in attendance.
As Lambert continued, he informed the audience of the National Junior College Athletics Association ruling.
“Unfortunately, yesterday we received some bad news,” he said. “That bad news was that our men’s soccer team, and many of the players, would be disqualified from playing the next two games. I think you know what that means.”
Lambert expressed disappointment at the ruling, and then introduced PCC Athletics Director Edgar Soto to further address the crowd.
“We have a situation where interpretation of a rule and how it is looked at is at issue,” Soto said. “The rule, which was implemented April 1, basically says that ‘if there is any attempt’ made towards an incident going on, it will be treated as if it’s a bench-clearing situation.”
Soto explained that the NCJAA interpreted the rule, Article 18, to include end of game situations. “Where this rule is unclear, and where we disagree, is how this rule is interpreted during a post-game situation; there was a celebration.”
Soto then made clear that PCC’s coaches and players reacted appropriately. “Our young men, our coaches, did an outstanding job,” he said. “Not one of our student-athletes retaliated, threw a punch. They knew what was on the line.”
Soto acknowledged that an unidentified PCC fan did “hit the head coach from Phoenix College,” and that coach Cosgrove was ejected earlier in the game for a red card. However, Soto noted it was Cosgrove’s third red card in 19 years.
Questions from the audience followed, with local news outlets and parents attempting to understand both what led up to the brawl and the subsequent punishment.
Soto pointed out that with the implementation of Article 18 by the NJCAA in April, there was no right to appeal. “There is no appeal process, but we are exploring all our options and will continue to do so.”
Soto continued, detailing what evidence was submitted to the NJCAA from the referees on the field. “The head official sent a report, he sent it saying four student athletes had received red cards post-game.”
Soto also sent a statement.
“We watched the video, and when I sent my statement in I mentioned nobody from PCC was involved in any pushing or shoving,” he said. “I thought I was going to get something back from the NJCAA commending us.”
As the press conference continued, parents of Aztec players began to question the NJCAA’s rationale and interpretation of the incident.
Michael Anderson, father of goalkeeper Taylor Anderson, was frustrated by the apparent duplicity of the NJCAA’s rule. “How can they make a decision like this when it’s post-season?” he said. “Then not let there be an appeal? It’s a double standard.”
Soto concurred, adding that in reaching out to the NJCAA, he had proposed a re-thinking of Article 18. “If this is the rule, this is something that needs to be explored by our national office, our region, our ADs, to do something to possibly change this rule.”
Another parent asked if the NJCAA’s ruling would affect the player’s permanent records or playing careers. Soto was quick to point out that current freshman would have to serve a one-game suspension next season.
“As far as the sophomores, what bothers us is that our sophomores were probably going to make the national championship and be seen by anywhere from 50 to 100 college scouts, so their opportunities to get looked at and scouted are not there,” Soto said.
The focus then shifted to video evidence taken from multiple cameras, including Phoenix College’s gamecast.
“We did get some video from fans as well,” Soto said. “Every video we’ve seen, none of our student-athletes retaliated, punched anybody or any of those situations.”
Parents then began to complain about how the video evidence was utilized by the NJCAA to arrive at its decision. “This whole statement is pretty much going off what they see in a piece of video,” Anderson said.
Lambert assured the crowd that PCC was pursuing all options but that the executive director of the NJCAA, Mary Ellen Leicht, said other colleges had been in similar situations.
“The policy is such that it is a no tolerance policy, and she kept reiterating that,” Lambert said.
Soto then pulled up an email sent earlier in the day from Phoenix College’s athletic director Samantha Ezell. In it, Ezell assumes responsibility for Phoenix College’s role in the incident.
“I want to take this opportunity to apologize to you for the actions of our student-athletes, it was clear we initiated the fight and the entire incident,” Ezell wrote.
Soto then addressed the motivation behind the NJCAA’s implementation of Article 18 by citing the Netflix original series “Last Chance U.” The series concludes with an episode detailing a bench-clearing brawl and its aftermath.
“That’s why this rule was put in, because of that situation directly,” Soto said.
The proceedings became emotional as Cosgrove addressed the crowd.
“First I want to say, my relationship with PCC goes back almost 30 years as a student-athlete and as a coach,” he said, pausing to compose himself.
The room fell silent.
“At no point have I ever felt such great support from administration. The universal support of the administration is somewhat emotional.”
Cosgrove then praised his players. “In the worst possible scenario on a soccer field, they handled themselves exactly the way I wanted them to.”
After finishing his statement, Cosgrove took questions from the media and parents. A reporter from the Aztec Press asked if the officials had let the game get out of hand.
“I’m not comfortable discussing officiating,” Cosgrove said. Almost immediately, multiple parents interjected.
“Yes,” they said, in unison.
“I’ll let the referee report speak for itself,” Cosgrove said. “I will say though, in all transparency, I was removed from the game, and rightfully so. That decision was not inappropriate.”
The proceedings then changed tone again, as another video of the incident was shown. That’s when Sean Stoermer, father of midfielder Justin Stoermer, began to speak.
“They made this decision out of haste, I’m sorry I am speaking out,” he said. “Because they’ve showed these sophomore players a grave injustice and denied them opportunity. There is always room for interpretation, if they get this video, I highly recommend they reconsider.”
Soto confirmed that he would send all additional video to the NJCAA for consideration, and that PCC would be sending a letter to the NJCAA’s national office.
The rest of the conference consisted of a blow-by-blow analysis of the first videotape. Parents also thanked Cosgrove for the part he played in their children’s lives.
“I just want to say, I think for everyone in here, you’ve been with a lot of our boys since they were small all the way up to now,” Anderson said. “You’ve never done any wrong, everything positive, and I just want to thank you right now.”
The crowd broke out in applause.