DuVal point guard Michael Cunningham ruled ineligible, will not play this season

December 2, 2013

Michael Cunningham, DuVal’s standout fifth-year senior point guard, is ineligible to play for the Tigers this season, according to Earl Hawkins, director of athletics in Prince George’s County. Cunningham has already played four seasons of high school basketball, Hawkins said, the maximum allowed by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA).

“He’s not eligible,” Hawkins said. “It’s not academics, it’s because of a state rule that limits players to four years of eligibility.”

Hawkins said he has told Cunningham’s family about the ruling and that DuVal conducted an investigation into his eligibility and sent Cunningham a letter explaining that his four years of eligibility are up.

As a true freshman in the 2009-10 season, Cunningham played on the junior varsity team at Carroll before transferring to Paul VI Catholic, where he played the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. According to The Post’s records, Cunningham was listed as a sophomore and a junior during those seasons and played in 20 and 25 games, respectively.

The 6-foot-2 guard then transferred to DuVal, where he reclassified to the class of 2014 and was therefore listed as a junior again last season. He averaged 18.1 points per game in 23 games for the Tigers. Cunningham, who has received offers from Towson, Wagner, Quinnipiac, and others, was set to be one of Prince George’s County’s most dangerous scorers this season.

DuVal Coach Lafayette Dublin said he “hasn’t heard anything” from Hawkins, though he said he’s been holding his point guard out of the team’s practices and scrimmages for “personal reasons.” Dublin also said Cunningham has been “dealing with the state” to address his eligibility.

MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks wouldn’t comment on Cunningham’s situation specifically but said players have “four seasons of eligibility once they start high school.”

“Whether it’s public or private school, we say that once you start ninth grade, you have four years of eligibility,” Sparks said. “However you use that, wherever that happens to be, it all counts.”

Cunningham’s situation highlights the issues surrounding reclassification, the process of staying back a year and officially dropping from one recruiting class to the next year’s. Reclassifying is becoming increasingly common among high school basketball players looking to gain another year of experience, size, and exposure to improve their chances at Division I scholarship offers.

Because Maryland limits public school athletes to four years of eligibility in any one sport — regardless of whether they play on the freshman, junior varsity or varsity teams — players who reclassify usually do so when they transfer from public schools to private schools, which don’t share those regulations. The state also has a rule preventing any athlete who turns 19 before Aug. 1 from participating in high school athletics in the following school year. Some private school conferences, including the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, enforce that regulation, too.

Hawkins said the Prince George’s high school athletic administration has had to deal with the four-year rule “a little more often” since the economic downturn a few years ago, as players transferred from private schools back to public schools.

Cunningham would likely have been one of the top public school players in the region this season, and while DuVal hoped he might be cleared to play, Sparks said there is no precedent for such an allowance.

“Let me put it this way,” Sparks said. “We have never allowed, and our regulations do not allow, a fifth-year player to participate.”

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