For four glorious days in May, the girls on the Langley High School Soccer Team were champions.
Their 2-to-1 win over South Lakes High School on Friday May 16 clinched the Great Falls District Title and capped an impressive season record of 11 wins and one loss. The only defeat was to Oakton -- in double overtime.
But just four hours before Langley began suiting up for the first round of the prestigious Regional Soccer Tournament, the team was stripped of its title and yanked from further competition this year. For Langley, the victory celebration was over.
The first step toward that end began in the final round of district competition this week before. Although neither team knew it, South Lakes Coach Mary Ellen Harris said she notified tournament officials that South Lakes would play the championship game under protest because, Harris alleged, one Langley player was ineligible under Virginia High School Soccer rules.
A formal protest was later filed with the Great Falls District Conference, whose membership is composed of principals of the nine schools in the conference.
The following Tuesday, the conference called an emergency meeting to consider the protest. Langley principal Thomas Cabelus said the final decision hinged on the question of whether the student was legally enrolled at Langley. And, Cabelus said, he had no proof that she was. Cabelus joined the other eight members of the conference in deciding that Langley would forfeit all games in which the student had played.
South Lakes, defeated by Langley on Friday, was elevated to the district champion.
At 4 p.m. that day, the opening day of the Regional Tournament, Langley Coach Arlene Jacobs began calling the members of her team, one by one, to tell them the bad news.
"There were tears, I can tell you," said Jacobs, her voice shaking. "You can tell I'm obviously upset about the whole thing."
According to several knowledgeable sources, the problem began last summer when a 17-year-old student from Lee High School moved to Great Falls with her family.
Their house is in the Herndon High School District, on the boundary between Herndon and Langley, the student said.
This week, the student recounted the mix-up that finally ended in the loss of the team championship. Over the summer, she said, she became friends with many youngsters in her neighborhood who attended Langley, and decided she would like to go to school with her friends.
However, she said, when she called school administrators for information on how to transfer to another school and was told it would take several months, she decided to go to Herndon instead.
After attending Herndon for a week in September, she said, she registered at Langley, using the address of a friend in that district.
That false address cost the team the championship.
"I never would have done it if I knew it would end up like this," she said this week.
Since the protest, rumors have spread through both high schools. Langley's coach Jacobs was accused by students at South Lakes of recruiting a star forward for her team.South Lakes Coach Mary Ellen Harris was accused by Langley parents of sitting on the information until a forfeiture would benefit her own team.
Both coaches deny the charges.
"Absolutely untrue," Jacobs snapped when asked if she recruited the student.
"I am 100 percent sure there was no more than a 5-second lag time between when I heard about the Langley student and when I called our assistant athletic director," said Harris.
As the issue became a topic for gossip around the schools, Harris says, she came under the increasing criticism, not only for the timing of the protest but for doing it at all.
"I did what was right and yet I, and the team members, are taking a lot of flack about it -- instead of the (Langley) team . . .," Harris says bitterly.
Langley team members say they were unaware that their teammate was not legally enrolled at Langley.
"She even rode a Langley High School bus," said team captain Chris Galiani. "She lived on the border between the two schools, there's no way any of us could have known what she was doing."
Even though most of the team members seem to sympathize with the student, they admit that being blocked from the regionals was a major disappointment. Several players said the tournament was particularly important because of the college scouts who attended it.
"I'm a junior," Gallani said. "If the scouts were going to see me, it would have to be this year."
For the most part, however, the team, which stuck together to win games, is presenting a unified defense of their teammate. They fiercely defend her action, saying she was unaware of the possible consequences. They are critical of the district conference; which they contend punished them too severely.
The student in question has formally applied to be allowed to attend Langley next year.
The only tangible evidence of Langley's victory are the district championship medals each girl received. And the Langley team refuses to let go of them.
"They can keep asking but we're not giving them back," says a very determined Gallani.