Players held out of NCAAs

Martin Fox

Playing without two of its top players, the No. 16 Northwestern women’s tennis team lost 4-1 to No. 45 Kansas State on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Championships held in Evanston.

Following a recommendation from the NCAA, England natives Cristelle Grier and Ruth Barnes were declared ineligible by NU athletic officials Friday night, just hours before the match.

According to NU Associate Athletic Director Nancy Lyons, NU (19-9) was forced to declare Grier and Barnes ineligible because of the NCAA’s differing interpretation of the rules regarding the players’ high school graduation dates.

“We certified them on what we believed the rule to be and then we found out on Wednesday night that it’s not what the NCAA believes,” Lyons said.

Without Grier and Barnes, who play at the No. 1 and No. 5 positions, the rest of the NU players were forced to play out of position against Kansas State (15-7).

NU came away with the doubles point, but was overmatched by Kansas State in the singles competition. Jessica Rush, who replaced Grier at the No. 1 position, took Kansas State’s Petra Sedlmajerova to a decisive third set before losing and sealing NU’s fate.

NU coach Claire Pollard said after the loss that it was a “joke” that Grier and Barnes were forced to sit.

“We didn’t have our team out there, you can’t even call it a real match,” Pollard said. “I won’t even put that loss on my record.”

Pollard said she disagreed with the ruling and considered playing No. 9 Grier and Barnes despite the recommendation from the NCAA, but she did not want to risk losing the players’ permanent eligibility.

Under NCAA rules, a foreign athlete must attend college within one year of graduating from a high school equivalent. If they remain out of school longer, they will be forced to sit out the first year of eligibility.

In the United Kingdom, a student may be considered graduated from high school at two different levels. At the basic level, the student is required to study for five years at what are called the “O” levels, and then pass an exam upon completion of the classes. But those students looking to pursue a university education must complete an additional two years of study at the so-called “A” levels of high school.

Lyons said the NCAA considered Grier and Barnes — who both studied at the “A” level — to have graduated after their five years at the “O” levels, and were therefore ineligible because they had failed to enter university in the time required by the NCAA.

Kansas State’s Andrea Cooper, who also hails from England and studied at the “A” level, played in Saturday’s match against NU. Pollard said Kansas State had not received the same recommendation from the NCAA regarding the status of the school’s English athlete.

Complicating the situation was the discovery of a document on Sunday that appeared to show both Grier and Barnes to be in compliance with the NCAA’s rules. Pollard said Richard Barnes, Ruth’s father, directed her to a portion of the NCAA’s own website that clearly showed the two players were eligible.

According the NCAA rules posted on its website, an athlete may be considered graduated from high school after seven years of study if he or she is enrolled in “A” level classes — meaning Grier and Barnes are completely within the rules.

Pollard said she is protesting the match against Kansas State to both the NCAA and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and although the results are most likely final due to the infeasibility of playing the match again, the NU coach expects the NCAA to realize its error.

“The ideal scenario would be for someone from the NCAA to come to us and say ‘What can we do to make amends?'” Pollard said.

Although NU’s season came to an end in the most devastating of ways for Pollard, the NU coach said she is optimistic that the NCAA will recognize its mistake and reinstate Grier’s eligibility in time for the NCAA singles championships that begin next Monday in Gainsville, Fla.

All playing out of position — Jessica Rush at No. 1, Andrea Yung at No. 3, Stacy Kokx at No. 4 and Kristi Roemer at No. 5 the Cats lost their first four singles matches.

After defeating NU, Kansas State went on to beat No. 9 Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday. They will advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA championships.