By FRANCISCO ZAPATA
A post-game altercation involving Pima Community College and Phoenix College players and fans controversially disqualified the Pima men’s soccer team from further postseason play.
The Aztecs won their third consecutive Division I, Region I title Oct. 29 after defeating Phoenix College 3-1.
The win qualified PCC for a four-team NJCAA West District Tournament in Cheyenne, Wyoming on Nov. 4. A win at that tournament would have guaranteed Pima a spot in the NJCAA Division I National Tournament, where they finished third last year.
Instead, the post-game brawl ended Pima’s season. It began when a Phoenix College athlete struck a Pima athlete on the Kino North Stadium soccer field.
Some Pima players stopped their post-game celebration and dashed to the aid of their teammate. Fans hopped the fence and ran onto the field.
According to video evidence presented by PCC Athletic Director Edgar Soto, one fan punched the Phoenix coach. Three Pima players were punched by opposing team members, but no Pima players threw punches.
The Phoenix College athletic director emailed Soto on Nov. 2, apologizing on behalf of the Phoenix players who initiated the fight. She also thanked Soto and his staff for de-escalating the situation.
During a Nov. 2 press conference, Soto applauded the men’s team for showing discipline.
“Our student-athletes did an outstanding job,” Soto said. “Not one of our student-athletes retaliated or threw a punch.”
After providing a statement to the NJCAA about the post-game altercation, Soto received an email on Nov. 1 from NJCAA Executive Director Mary Leicht.
“Due to the bench-clearing incident, all student-athletes and staff from both institutions will be charged with a violent ejection,” Leicht wrote. “In the case of PCC, a two-game suspension will result in an insufficient number of student-athletes to participate in the 2016 NJCAA Division I Men’s Soccer West District Playoff.”
Soto said the email left him in disbelief.
“It was a shocker to me when I got it that morning,” he said. “If anything, I was waiting to hear back and be commended and thanked for having our athletes behave in the proper way.”
A rule implemented by the NJCAA on April 1 sparked Pima’s elimination.
The general sportsmanship rule, Article 18, Section 2, A.1.c, says a violent ejection is warranted when “any bench personnel other than the head coach leave the bench area or designated warm-up area when a fight may break out or has broken out.”
Soto strongly disagreed with the NJCAA’s ruling.
“Where this rule is unclear and where we disagree with the NJCAA is how this rule was interpreted,” he said. “This was a post-game situation, there was a celebration, there was an incident that took place.”
Records from the head referee show four Phoenix student-athletes were given red cards during the game, three for fighting and one for verbal abuse of officials.
No Pima players were carded, but head coach David Cosgrove was red-carded early in the first half for arguing with officials. It was his third ejection in 19 years as Pima head coach.
“I was removed from the game, and rightfully so,” Cosgrove said.
At the Nov. 2 news conference, Cosgrove tried to gather himself as he stood before media outlets, parents and players.
“I’m really proud of my kids,” he said. “In the worst possible scenario on a soccer field, they handled themselves exactly how I wanted them to.”
Cosgrove took responsibility for his players’ actions, but felt they behaved properly.
“The instructions are very simple before the game,” he said. “Walk away, put your teammates before yourself and if somebody’s in trouble, go get them out of trouble.”
The NJCAA said running toward the brawl to restrain or protect teammates “escalated the incident, as evidenced in the game video.”
Pima’s elimination sent Yavapai College to the West District Tournament. The Roughriders were eliminated in the first game, losing 3-1 to Trinidad State College.
Pima has appealed the NJCAA ruling, but a decision will come too late for this year’s team.
Sophomores lost an opportunity to compete for a national title and to play in front of university scouts.
However, a favorable appeal would remove returning freshmen from suspension for the first two games next season.
PCC finished the 2016 season with an 18-3-1 record and ranked No. 9 in the nation.
The team was also on a nine-game winning streak.
Pima advanced to the championship game by eliminating the Arizona Western College Matadors in a 2-1 home victory on Oct. 27.
That game was also action-packed, with aggressive play from both sides. Play was stopped numerous times and the referee disciplined players while trying to control the sidelines.
Visit aztecpressonline.com for detailed accounts of the games.
“I have tremendous pride in what we’ve accomplished,” Cosgrove said. “The kids were fantastic. I couldn’t be more proud.”