MOOSEHEART – The Mooseheart boys basketball team enjoyed good news in the courthouse and on the basketball court Tuesday.
To cap it all off, towering South Sudanese transfer students Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng posed for pictures after their 53-21 win against Westminster Christian with bemused Warriors cheerleaders, not a bad way for the teenagers to unwind at the end of a hectic, draining day on Mooseheart’s usually quiet campus.
“Our fans that came, our family that came to cheer us, everyone was happy that we came back to play,” Puou said. “Everyone was very excited.”
A Kane County judge on Tuesday afternoon granted Mooseheart a restraining order on IHSA executive director Marty Hickman’s ruling that the Ramblers’ three transfers – ranging in height from 6-foot-7 to 7-foot-1 – were ineligible for the rest of the season due to recruiting bylaw violations. The court ruling means that the three can continue playing until Monday’s appeal before the entire IHSA Board of Directors.
Once the ball tipped Tuesday night, the Ramblers performed like a team that knew it could be playing on borrowed time, roaring to a 14-0 early lead. The 6-10 Puou had 12 of his game-high 16 points in the first quarter, helping the Ramblers to an eventual 31-5 halftime lead.
“I think when you get close to not being able to play something that you love, man alive, I think they really appreciated the fact of being out on the floor tonight,” Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said. “All of them.”
The Ramblers (3-2) won their third straight game, with their two early losses coming to out-of-state competition at a downstate tournament.
It was an emotional day for the entire team – from the South Sudanese transfers to the U.S.-born teammates with whom they have bonded to Ahrens, whose role in bringing the players into the program has come under scrutiny.
The program and Ahrens could face penalties if the board of directors upholds the IHSA’s ruling next week, but Ahrens and the school adamantly contend that Nyang, Puou and Deng were not brought to campus for athletic reasons.
“We love the fraternity, we love the Moose, and then people are kind of saying ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ ” an emotional Ahrens said. “Boy, it kind of gets at us a little bit. ... That’s tough for a lot of us to handle because Mooseheart’s our life, and the Moose fraternity’s our life.”
The Warriors (3-4) were badly outsized by Mooseheart – par for the course this season – but Westminster Christian coach Bruce Firchau still was irked by his team’s showing.
“If our players were hoping that the Mooseheart team was going to be ruled ineligible by the court, then I would be so disappointed, and that point was covered in the locker room with our players,” said Firchau, who nonetheless expressed misgivings about having to compete against a team with Mooseheart’s advantages.
The Ramblers were without one starter, guard Oumaru Abdulahi, who Ahrens said will be out until after Christmas because of persistent, football-related ankle woes.
Deng added 11 points for the Ramblers, who drew several TV cameras to their fieldhouse as Tuesday’s eligibility ruling made news throughout the Chicago area.
Mooseheart turns its attention to tonight’s game at Hinckley-Big Rock, a school that acknowledged Tuesday it contacted the IHSA because of concerns about the agency that placed the three South Sudanese students at Mooseheart.
That backdrop could make for an emotional night, but Ahrens thinks his players have shown they know how to conduct themselves amid adversity.
“We’re going to play with class, and that’s all there is to it,” Ahrens said.