Last spring, the weight room at Oakland Mills High was bustling after school, as football players powered up under the watchful eyes of coaches preparing for the fall season. But these days the room is quiet after classes; no coaches have been named for next fall, and athletes have more questions than answers about the upcoming football season.
"We knew what to expect [last year] and now we really don't," said David Howard, a junior defensive end who is hoping to earn a college football scholarship. "It's like everything is up in the air because no one knows who the coach is going to be, and players aren't coming out like they did last year because they don't know if they're going to be able to relate to whoever is our coach. It's like we're starting over in a way."
Oakland Mills is not the only Howard County school where athletes, coaches and administrators are finishing the year on an uncertain note. The school year in Howard was marked by a number of high school athletic teams that faced scrutiny for things that happened off the field. Seven of the county's 11 public high schools forfeited athletic competitions or had players suspended from school for violating county rules. In addition, two coaches were removed from their positions because of their conduct off the field.
There is little doubt that Howard County schools, among Maryland's top public school systems in terms of academic performance, have been thrust into a negative light over sports. The problems encountered -- and the school system's responses -- have some coaches asking whether they want to continue guiding teams.
"We've had a lot of good years in Howard County -- a lot more good ones than bad ones -- but this has been a tough year," said Don Disney, Howard County's coordinator of athletics. "But I think in this instance each one was a separate and unrelated event, and it's not like you can connect the dots."
Centennial, Reservoir, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake broke county rules last fall that affected their athletic programs.
Six Centennial athletes were suspended for the fall season after being cited for underage drinking at a school dance on Aug. 28. In late September, Reservoir suspended seven varsity boys' soccer players and two junior varsity players for five days for hazing a freshman teammate by taping him to a goal post and kicking balls at him.
Oakland Mills forfeited seven regular season football victories and a spot in the 1A playoffs on Nov. 13, when the school reported it had used an academically ineligible player.
After a two-month investigation, school officials said Ken Hovet, the athletic director, football coach and a social studies teacher at the Columbia school, played a role in an improper grade change to a football player's transcript. They also concluded the school had allowed 10 other academically ineligible athletes to play fall sports.
Then-superintendent John O'Rourke placed Hovet on unpaid leave and recommended to the school board he be fired. Hovet has appealed the decision, and a hearing officer will listen to the case Friday and submit a nonbinding recommendation to the school board.
Wilde Lake forfeited football games for using a player who lived outside the school district. School officials determined the player's parents intentionally falsified documents so he could play at Wilde Lake.
The county's Rules and Infractions Committee declared that player, a junior, ineligible to play football next season at any county school. But the committee did not punish Wilde Lake's coaches, saying they had no knowledge of the violation until school principal Restia Whitaker reported the infraction.
"I think as a county we have shown a lot of integrity, because each school has turned itself in and not tried to cover it up," Disney said. "Our coaches are the police in sports in Howard County."
This spring more incidents brought negative attention to county athletes and coaches.
Three Mount Hebron students -- including varsity basketball player Demitris Myrick -- were charged with raping a female student in a school bathroom and spent six days in jail before charges were dismissed for lack of evidence, largely because the accuser recanted her story. School officials, citing confidentially rules, will not say if action was taken against Myrick.
On April 30, Howard County police came to Oakland Mills and arrested Anthony Lynn Evans, the Scorpions' leading wide receiver last football season, on four drug charges, including a felony count of selling marijuana on school grounds. Evans faces 27 years in jail and a $37,000 fine and is not currently attending Oakland Mills.
Three days later, Atholton girls' lacrosse coach Beth Mazanec was removed from her position after she reported the possibility of underage drinking by team members during a team-sponsored scavenger hunt.
And Long Reach junior tennis player Michael Duong walked off the court in the county championships, claiming other teams had broken county rules by stacking their lineup during the regular season. Disney said they are not currently investigating that allegation.
"After the year we've had as a county, maybe we just had a bad luck streak because I still think we have a lot more good than we have bad," said Carol Satterwhite, the interim athletic director at Oakland Mills. "I'm sure we have some things happen in other counties that we don't know about, too, but I know Howard County cares [about] its perception, and we are going to try to fix the problems we have."
Said Ned Sparks, the executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association: "A lot of people's perceptions are based on the positives and negatives they see, and Howard County has had a very tough year. But I don't think a county's reputation should be based on one year, because that's not fair. If you look at Howard County for the past several years, there is a lot more good than bad. And when something happens in terms of athletics, the dirty laundry is going to be aired in the open, not like it would if something bad would happen, say, in the science classroom."
The incidents in Howard have given coaches new worries and, some say, new responsibilities. Some are concerned they might be held accountable for players' actions away from the field, as was the case with Atholton's lacrosse team. Teams throughout the county use social activities to improve team unity, but never before has a coach been penalized for a player's conduct during an off-campus function.
"I tell my guys at the beginning of the season [that] if they do that, I want nothing to do with it and it's their thing," said Long Reach football coach Pete Hughes, whose players carpool to a Chinese buffet in Glen Burnie for dinner the night before games. "I'm not telling them to go pile in each other's car and go have dinner. All I tell them is if they are going to go, to tip well. Letting them go is a decision their parents make, not me."
"I've been to our pasta dinners a couple of times, but I don't mind because it's supervised by a player's parents," said Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, the Mount Hebron girls' lacrosse coach. "It's not like the parents make the food and then leave. I think the difference between that and what happened at Atholton is that their coach told them to do the scavenger hunt, so she was held responsible, and it's unfortunate what happened to her because of what a few of her players did."
Coaches also feel they may be held responsible for parents' actions.
"We did everything right, and we were still wrong," said 30-year Wilde Lake football coach Doug DuVall, who had to forfeit games because a parent gave an inaccurate address for a player. "I don't know what more we could have done. Now, not only are we responsible for taking care of the kid when he's here, we have to make sure parents are being honest, too. What do we have to do? Drive the kid home after practice?"
Said Glenelg boys' basketball coach Jeremy Snyder, "If it ever comes to that, then that's the day I give this job up."
At Oakland Mills, no coaches have signed up yet for fall sports, although they have until the county deadline of Thursday to do so. Some acknowledged they have delayed to show support for former football coach Hovet, but others say they just need time to think about the implications that coaching might have on their teaching jobs.
"I think a lot of people are worried about losing their teaching jobs because of what might happen when they're coaching, like it did at Oakland Mills," said River Hill football coach and former boys' basketball coach Brian Van Deusen, who will also become the school's athletic director this fall. "I've thought about it. The fear is that the $4,000 you get as athletic director or the $3,000 you get as a coach is not worth risking your teaching job that you make $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000."
County athletic officials have taken steps in an effort to prevent some of this year's transgressions from resurfacing next year. But they say they cannot come up with rules to prevent every potential problem.
Mike Williams, Glenelg's athletic director, has compiled detailed information on county and MPSSAA policies to address at a new, mandatory preseason seminar for new coaches. The county also has scheduled a mandatory in-service program June 22 for administrators and athletic directors to go over sports issues.
"We want to make sure that yesterday's news stays yesterday's news," Disney said. "We're trying to take steps to make sure these kinds of things do not happen again. I'm sure from time to time, something is going to happen. . . . If we put a lot of effort into tying to prevent unfortunate things from happening, the chances of them not happening are going to be in our favor."
Since the football forfeits, the county also began selecting one team at random -- using Ping-Pong balls in a lottery-type machine -- each season to be audited by an outside firm for compliance with eligibility rules. Hammond was audited in the winter and Mount Hebron in the spring, and no violations were uncovered.
The school system also for the first time will require each school to hold a mandatory meeting with athletes' parents to explain county policy on eligibility and conduct.
"We're going to have them sign a piece of paper telling us that everything they've given us about their kid is correct: birth date, home address and age," said Adam Eldridge, who will be athletic director at Wilde Lake this fall. "They need to know what they do affects not only their child, but everyone on the team, because it's the whole team that will be punished if their kid turns out to be ineligible for any reason. We've been through some bad things this year as a county, but I honestly believe it's a great place to live and things will get better."