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After one player’s assault of a referee, a Texas high school team wonders why it was sidelined

Edinburg (Tex.) High School player Emmanuel Duron is pulled from the field by a coach after charging a referee during a Dec. 3 game. (Joel Martinez/the Monitor/AP)

Some players hoped to redeem last season’s disappointing finish. Others hoped a run in the Texas state football playoffs would boost their chances for a college scholarship.

Edinburg High School had earned a spot in the playoffs with a 35-21 victory over Pharr-San Juan-Alamo on Dec. 3. But the game brought national attention upon the South Texas community of 100,000 for an ugly incident in the second quarter, when Edinburg’s star player angrily bowled over a referee after his ejection. A video clip went viral. The player was charged with assault. And a week later, the entire team was banned from the postseason.

The Edinburg school district announced the day after the game that it would withhold the team from the playoffs in response to defensive end Emmanuel Duron knocking over referee Fred Gracia. Edinburg was replaced by another area team, which will play in the first round Friday.

“I’m still shocked,” senior linebacker Oscar Cruz said. “I still don’t believe it. I still feel like I’m going to play on Friday, but I’m sure it’ll hit whenever I see the other school play.”

Players and their parents said they don’t condone Duron’s actions. Ultimately, their frustration is centered on the district’s disciplinary measures.

“Had the officials at halftime said, ‘You know what, it’s a forfeit, we’re disqualifying the team right now, go home,’ I would have taken that better than the officials letting them play the second half knowing that you’re going to disqualify them the next day,” said Frank Coronado, father of Frankie Coronado, a senior tackle on the team. “That was not right.”

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Miguel Farias, president of the Edinburg school district board, and interim superintendent Gilbert Garza Jr. addressed the matter Tuesday in a board meeting. Farias said the board’s hand was forced by the University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing athletic body. In the meeting, which was streamed online, Farias said that, while he supported the decision to remove the team from the playoffs, it was made “very clear to the district that UIL would have removed the football team from the playoffs if the district did not withdraw the team themselves.”

Garza, who was responsible for the decision, said in the meeting that he thought it would have “created a lot more sanctions on us as a district” had he not withdrawn the team.

The district declined a request to speak with Garza. It said in a statement to The Washington Post that it would not comment further on the incident involving Duron until its investigation was completed.

The UIL said in a statement: “Physical contact with a sports official is never appropriate. Our thoughts and well wishes are with the official involved. We applaud the Edinburg CISD administration for addressing this situation swiftly and taking appropriate action in removing themselves from the playoffs and for dealing with the student involved in the incident.”

The athletic body’s executive committee is scheduled to revisit the decision Monday, three days after Edinburg’s would-be opening playoff game.

Shortly after players learned of their playoff removal, Edinburg Coach J.J. Leija confirmed the district’s decision to the players during their midday athletics class elective, which, like all of their classes, is being conducted remotely.

“I could tell he was very disappointed, very heartbroken. I had never seen Coach like that,” said Cruz, the senior linebacker.

Frankie Coronado organized a response via group chat with Cruz and other teammates. Some 30 players gathered outside city hall Friday evening to appeal for the chance to play. According to several players and a parent, Garza invited the players into the board room and explained his reasoning. He said the decision was final.

Cruz has dedicated himself to the team since he volunteered to be a ballboy in seventh grade. He and his teammates dreamed of a playoff season as upperclassmen. Less than 24 hours after Duron was ejected from the game that seemingly actualized that dream, Cruz tried to pacify his frustrations by focusing on the relationships he built during his football career.

“They feel like brothers to me just because I spent so many hours with them in football,” he said of his teammates. “Those guys in general, I would do anything for them.”

But the season was effectively ended in an instant.

Edinburg led by a touchdown when Duron’s frustrations began to boil over; multiple teammates said Gracia, the referee, used profanities to scold him after penalties. On a third-down play, Duron burst through the line and was penalized for a late hit on the quarterback.

Duron and Gracia exchanged words after the play was over. Then, after the defensive end walked back to the sideline, Gracia issued two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties, disqualifying Duron. Gracia was picking up his flag when Duron barreled toward him; in video of the incident, spectators can be heard screaming, “No, no.”

Duron rammed Gracia to the turf before he was restrained by teammate Anthony Cardona. Gracia, a 27-year referee, was evaluated for concussion symptoms and a shoulder injury in an on-site ambulance, according to the Monitor. He eventually walked off the field and did not return to the game.

Duron was escorted from the stadium by police officers. He was charged the following day with misdemeanor assault and posted bond.

Duron apologized to teammates in their group chat Sunday, according to senior safety Andre Vargas, who said he would have preferred that the district penalize Duron rather than the entire team.

“I don’t think we should be punished because we didn’t do anything; we even tried to stop this,” Vargas said. Duron “is our teammate, but there’s no way he could come back. His actions were inexcusable.”

Vargas said he endured a hamstring injury in last Thursday’s game but he was intent to recover in time for Friday’s playoff contest.

“I had colleges looking into my film,” he said. “They wanted to see what I can do in a playoff atmosphere, in a big-game situation, and I won’t be able to show them that fully because they took us out.”

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