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Ongoing Debate Over Holding Students Back for Athletic Reasons

Paul Steinbach
Ihsaa

Though not necessarily against the rules, the practice of holding students back a grade to enhance their athletic prospects has sparked debate.

Gordon Engelhardt of the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana points to brothers Ernie and Everett Duncan, both graduates of Harrison High School, as "kind of the local poster boys for the recent trend of high school athletes being 'held back,' the controversial practice of giving a player an added year of maturity and perhaps an edge over their younger opponents."

Engelhardt notes that nothing the Duncans did was against Indiana High School Athletic Association rules. As long as a player does not turn 20 before the state finals of the sport he or she is competing in, the player is still eligible. If an athlete is 19, he or she is eligible, even though most seniors are 18 or younger.

“Oh yes, I think my parents holding me back did me a lot of good athletically,” Ernie Duncan, who is 10th on the city's all-time leading boys' basketball scoring list with 1,428 points and helped lead the University of Vermont to a pair of NCAA tournament berths in college, told Engelhardt. “I was ready to play right away in college and it took less time to adjust. It also gave me a better chance to go and play a Division I sport and achieve what I achieved.”

Everett Duncan, who graduated a year behind his brother, is the city's No. 7 all-time leading scorer (1,551). He also played for Vermont, along with youngest brother Robin, now a senior for the Catamounts, Engelhardt reported.

A third example is Colson Montgomery, a multisport athlete who was drafted in the first round by the Chicago White Sox in July. Montgomery turned 19 on Feb. 27, his senior year at Southridge High School, where he led the Raiders to the Class 3A state baseball championship and the 2A semistate in basketball. Montgomery hit .287 in rookie league ball last summer.

"Even though it’s totally legit, he by definition was playing one grade out of his class," according to Engelhardt. "We’re just trying to shine a light on the issue. It's a loophole being exploited. The classic letter of the law vs. spirit of the law debate."

"I don't think it's a good idea for people to be held back for athletics," Barr-Reeve principal Jeff Doyle, who starred at Loogootee High School and was a member of the University of Southern Indiana's NCAA Division II men's basketball runners-up in 1994, told Engelhardt. "I don't agree with that."

Unlike Doyle, North athletics director Tyler Choate has no issue with students being "held back."

"If parents are following that by law, I see no issue with students being older for their grade," said Choate, also North's girls' basketball coach. "I believe it is solely a parent's decision."

Reitz boys’ basketball coach Michael Adams discussed the possibility of holding back his son Drew several years ago, but Michael's wife, Donna, basically told him he was crazy. Drew was valedictorian of his senior class at Reitz and played basketball for Marian University.

“There’s no secret it does make a big difference [athletically],” Michael said. "I talked to my wife and she said, 'Why do that?' He was a straight-A student and he's a doctor now. She was right."

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