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IHSA decision on Mooseheart proves to be good save for all

(from left) Akim Nyang Peter Kurowski MangisDeng Makur Puou all play for Mooseheart High School basketball team. They practiced Friday

(from left) Akim Nyang, Peter Kurowski, Mangisto Deng, and Makur Puou, all play for the Mooseheart High School basketball team. They practiced Friday Dec. 7, 2012. Nyang, Deng and Puou are from Sudan. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 13, 2013 11:14AM

It was a hard-fought battle for a solid week. But in the end, both sides came out winners because three Mooseheart athletes saved their basketball season — and the IHSA saved face.

The IHSA Board of Directors’ reversal Monday of the sudden decision to ban the Sudan teens from playing sports was a smart move for the association long known for its questionable intentions. IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman even declared the compelling testimony of the young players at the hearing was paramount in their decision, which also helped promote the novel idea this group might just have a heart after all.

At the same time, the IHSA got to do what it does best: impose its iron will. It may have reversed its decision in allowing the boys to play, but it also slapped Mooseheart with sanctions and put the school on probation for recruiting violations.

Mooseheart can’t be pleased with that decision. In a press release officials released Tuesday, the school continued to maintain it “violated no IHSA rules in accepting these young men as students, nor has it ever recruited any student for the purpose of improving its athletic standing in its 100-year history.”

Still, Mooseheart must bite its tongue and graciously accept those sanctions, because all along school officials insisted this controversy is about the boys being allowed to join their team.

I’m sure this IHSA hand-slap stings; but in the end, I think Mooseheart comes out on top in this mess.

Kurt Wehrmeister, Mooseheart’s director of communication and public affairs, told me he had tried awfully hard to get some TV coverage for the school’s Festival of Lights a few weeks ago, but got no takers. Once this controversy hit, the media swarmed. And with so much support pouring in for the school against the notorious IHSA, this controversy — with its compelling storyline — set the perfect stage for the Child City to talk about its mission: to “nurture, raise and educate children from across our continent and around the world, based solely on a child’s life circumstances and not on any special talents or gifts that he/she may possess.”

While many of us believe the world revolves around sports, there are plenty of stories pointing to Mooseheart’s successes taking place off the court or field. I was reminded of this when Wehrmeister told me about Marco Namowicz, who came to Mooseheart as a small child because his mom from Chicago could simply not afford to take care of him.

The boy was so good at playing the clarinet, it became clear early on to Mooseheart band director Steve Schmidt the school could not provide the instruction this child deserved. So Mooseheart sent him to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for a few summers. Eventually, he auditioned at Batavia High School, earning first chair; and today he’s about to earn a degree in music education from DePaul University.

The fact that Mooseheart kids can take advanced classes at the nearby but much larger Batavia — or that Mooseheart will take Batavia elementary students who can benefit from the Child City’s much smaller class sizes — is yet another example of how truly unique this place is. (According to Wehrmeister, there are only two like it in the country that accept disadvantaged children on such a large scale: Boys Town in Omaha, Neb., and Pennsylvania’s Milton Hershey School.)

That uniqueness, unfortunately, is a big reason this mess came to be.

“I think it was hard for the IHSA to wrap its mind around what we do and the kids we care for,” said Mooseheart Executive Director Scott Hart. “But sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and take one for the team ... the bottom line is, these boys can play.”

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