A Potomac teen-ager was benched for the rest of the soccer season last week when a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge refused to intervene in her dispute with Maryland school officials.
The battle that wound up in Judge William C. Miller's courtroom had been brewing since Christine Thebo, 16, a sophomore at Churchill High School in Potomac, was selected for Churchill's girls' soccer team and made plans to play for the next three years.
But in mid-March, she was told that she was eligible to play for only two of her three remaining years at Churchill because she already had played for one season at Holy Cross Academy, a Catholic school she attended until last January, her attorney Charles Wilson said.
State guidelines permit public school students to play three seasons in high school, state officials said, and Thebo already had played one season at Holy Cross. Therefore, officials said, she could play only two more years.
When Thebo learned she would have to give up her center forward position on the Churchill Bulldogs for one year, she and her parents appealed to higher authorities, Wilson said. And when the decision by a Maryland state school official went against her, her parents filed a lawsuit in county court.
In Miller's courtroom last week, Wilson argued the state guidelines were meant to apply only to play in public schools and Thebo's experience in private school should not be counted.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Anselmi, however, said the rules were meant to ensure fair competition and Thebo's soccer experience at Holy Cross should be counted.
Miller first told the lawyers that his children attend Springbrook High School, the arch-rival of Churchill, and said he would disqualify himself in the case if they wished. No one asked him to step aside.
Miller ruled the court could not interfere with the state's educational policy in this case because the guidelines were open to both of the interpretations put forward by the opposing lawyers.
It was for the State Board of Education to determine which interpretation it would use, Miller ruled.
Thebo's parents should have appealed the case further within the school system, he said. Because they had not exhausted administrative remedies, the court would not intervene, he said.
Miller added with a grin that he would have liked to decide the case differently and then "take the rest of the afternoon off to watch a soccer game."
Thebo's attorney said there would be no point in appealing to higher school authorities because the soccer play-off season is to end Friday.
Thebo is used to making the best of a bad situation when it comes to soccer. When she was 7 years old and wanted to play soccer in her neighborhood, the league did not have a girls' team. "So I played with the boys on a neighborhood team," she said. Now she is keeping busy as the Bulldogs' team manager. She Practices with them during the week and helps with bandaging team members and running the ball from the sidelines.
"It's frustrating sitting on the sidelines when you're used to playing," Thebo said.
She plans to remedy that by playing during her junior and senior years, which she said she believes are important because that's when coaches will be out scouting players for possible college scholarships