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Judge's ruling allows Mooseheart players to compete, for now

Mooseheart basketball player Makur Puou (center), who is from Sudan, hugs his teammates as they erupt in cheers upon hearing that they were cleared to play Tuesday and Wednesday.
Mooseheart basketball player Makur Puou (center), who is from Sudan, hugs his teammates as they erupt in cheers upon hearing that they were cleared to play Tuesday and Wednesday.

GENEVA – A Kane County judge granted a restraining order Tuesday that allows three Mooseheart boys basketball players from South Sudan to continue competing until the Illinois High School Association's board of directors considers the matter Monday.

Judge David Akemann made his afternoon ruling after attorneys representing the IHSA and Mooseheart argued their cases at a morning hearing.

Mooseheart had three games scheduled between the ruling and Monday, including Tuesday's home game against Westminster Christian and today's game at Hinckley-Big Rock, a school that reacted to allegations Tuesday that it helped set the IHSA's eligibility investigation in motion.

IHSA executive director Marty Hickman declared the players ineligible Thursday after an investigation, contending Mooseheart inappropriately brought the students to campus for athletic reasons through the African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education program.

"We are pleased with Judge Akemann's ruling today," Mooseheart executive director Scott Hart said in a statement after the ruling. " ... We greatly value our membership in the IHSA and look forward to our opportunity to present the IHSA Board of Directors with all the facts. Mooseheart has never brought any children to campus for athletic purposes."

Mooseheart originally was assured juniors Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng fulfilled their IHSA transfer eligibility requirements by sitting out last season, and the towering trio – Nyang stands 7-foot-1 tall, Puou is 6-10 and Deng is 6-7 – played in the Red Ramblers' first four games this season.

Mooseheart now must hope the IHSA's board of directors sees the trio's arrival in a different light than Hickman during an appea Monday at IHSA headquarters in Bloomington.

"We care about these boys and love them," Hart said. "We'd do that whether they're playing basketball or not, but it is an opportunity to get in front of the full board and tell our story. We'll lay it out on the table, and take what comes our way."

Attorney David Bressler argued at the hearing that the IHSA's investigation already has allowed for ample Mooseheart input.

"The IHSA followed its handbook and its rules, and we hope the judge does the same," Bressler said before the ruling.

Mooseheart, a residential campus that offers refuge to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, has "20 to 30 foreign-born students" on campus, Hart said, including students from Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Mexico and Canada. Hart said in 2011, A-HOPE reached out to Mooseheart about placing the students, not the other way around.

"If Mooseheart was an all-white school and suddenly four African boys showed up and created some type of dream team, I'd say something smells fishy there, but when you look at Mooseheart's population, we're a very diverse population," Hart said.

A fourth South Sudanese transfer student, Wal Khat, participated for the school's cross country team in the fall, winning a state medal that Hickman's ruling would negate.

Hart spoke passionately about the boys' war-torn background, saying their arrival spared them a life of being forced to be "child soldiers" and scrounging for food and water.

"To have the opportunity to come here to America, it's like they won the Powerball lottery, for them to be able to come over and get an education," Hart said.

Hinckley-Big Rock, a formidable Class 1A basketball program that could face a tougher postseason path if the transfers are allowed to keep playing, released a statement Tuesday that indicated H-BR athletic director and boys basketball coach Bill Sambrookes contacted the IHSA eight months before the season started to raise concerns about A-HOPE.

"It was never the intent of the Hinckley-Big Rock School District to attack the student athletes or Mooseheart," the school's statement read. "Our only intent was in gathering information about the A-HOPE program and the basis for participation in IHSA-sanctioned events and activities."

A-HOPE's website describes the organization as a nonprofit that provides "deserving student-athletes a seamless process of obtaining a student visa, transportation to the United States" and access to "an outstanding education."

The Mooseheart trio most recently played in last week's home opener against Leland-Earlville, a 60-45 Ramblers win after which coach Ron Ahrens raved about the way the South Sudanese players have acclimated at Mooseheart, on and off the court.

The boys have said they hope to use their basketball prowess as a way to bolster their chances to attend college in the United States.

“Them being on the floor is extremely important to them, and it’s extremely important for us to have them on the floor because that helps them develop a lot of things that we believe in, good sportsmanship, handling adversity, all that kind of stuff,” Ahrens said. “It’s been great. They’re easy to coach.”

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