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Community gathers in support of Haga

CENTRAL POINT — Approximately 200 community members here gathered Tuesday night at the Central Point School District's School Board meeting, and it had nothing to do with the regular session agenda.

The single-minded focus of the gathering was to show support for Crater High teacher and coach Greg Haga and lend a few passionate voices to the concerns over last Tuesday's decision by the Oregon School Activities Association to suspend Haga through the 2009-10 school year.

Superintendent Randy Gravon approved the request of a group headed up by Sheri Muzzioli and Jake Jakabosky to speak during the public comment section of Tuesday's meeting, and those selected tasked Gravon and the four board members present to throw their support behind an appeal to the OSAA on Haga's behalf.

"There's been a terrible injustice done to Greg with the penalty the OSAA has given him, and we need the support of this school board to help provide a united voice to help appeal Greg's punishment," Brian Wilkerson said. "We need for you to send a clear and decisive message to the OSAA that we believe this punishment is extreme in every definition of the word."

In all, five selected community members spoke at length on Haga's behalf, while a handful of others chimed in toward the end of the 45-minute proceeding. Most spoke of their respect and admiration for the way Haga has handled the young men and women he's encountered in his 20-plus years at the high school, and they also attempted to put the issue that drew Haga's suspension into perspective.

Crater was cited by the OSAA last week after an ineligible wrestler was granted permission by Haga to compete under an assumed name at a Dec. 29-30 tournament in Hawaii.

Following the night's agenda, Gravon met with the board members in a closed-door executive session to discuss a potential appeal on Haga's behalf. Since Cindy Tilley-Faubian, chairman of the school board, was unable to attend the meeting due to weather-related issues, Gravon said no action was taken Tuesday.

The next step, Gravon said, will be to continue the executive session with Tilley-Faubian and then take action in an open session.

"My hope is we can get everybody scheduled before the end of this week," said Gravon. "My goal is to try and get something by Thursday."

The district is required to provide a 24-hour public notice for their meetings, and Gravon said that information can be obtained on the district Web site (www.district6.org).

Given the outpouring of affection for Haga and his own insight into the popular community member, Gravon said that, although he has no say in the matter, it would be his hope that the board recommends supporting an appeal for Haga.

"I hope that's what they do, and I think that's what they'll do, but I'm not the one that's going to be making the vote," he said, adding that OSAA Executive Director Tom Welter told him a hearing on the issue would not be available prior to May 4.

"This is a community that feels, obviously, very passionately and very supportive of Greg, and that's what we saw tonight," added Gravon. "I was a little bothered by some of the statements regarding our lack of support. I think we have to understand that there was a violation and it's nobody's fault to the degree of the decision that was made. It was an OSAA decision and not one that we made."

For his part, Haga was touched by the support given, not only on Tuesday but since the OSAA's decision was handed down.

"There have been too many phone calls to return and way too many letters to write," said Haga. "I just thank them for their heartfelt concern about me and my family. I'm very touched by these people taking time out of their busy week to come down here on my behalf."

Haga did his best to be as inconspicuous as possible at Tuesday's meeting, waiting among about 75 others in the hallway outside the district office's board room.

About 125 others, including members of Crater's wrestling team, found themselves elbow-to-elbow and about four-rows deep inside the main room.

"I really don't like being the one in focus," said Haga. "I've always tried to put that off on the kids so this isn't a real comfortable position for me to be in."

"I wasn't even going to be here, but these guys are important to me so I felt like I should be here," he added while nudging a former Crater wrestler who had come out for the meeting.

As one of the main speakers, Won Bernhardt opened the proceedings by making sure the board knew that those in attendance were speaking in support of Haga and not representing him. Haga said that he is in talks with the teacher's union and others about his own appeal.

Bernhardt described Haga as "the type of coach that comes along once in a lifetime," and asked that the coach not be judged based on a "momentary lapse in judgment but for his lifetime of accomplishments as a person, as a community leader and, most of all, a great coach."

Kent Gutches, who like all the speakers has had children come up through the Crater system under Haga's guidance, attempted to point out the loose structure of the Hawaii tournament in question and that no one among the traveling party considered it to be a normal tournament.

He said four varsity wrestlers and six junior varsity wrestlers paid about $1,350 each to make the trip, which the Comets try to do every three years or so as a vacation of sorts. The ineligible wrestler in question had already paid for the trip and was using it as a vacation when it was decided that he might as well go ahead and wrestle considering the loose regulations.

During the event, Crater had a pair of California wrestlers and two others from visiting teams compete for them to help fill out the lineup.

"In normal tournaments you would weigh in every day, but in this particular tournament we weighed in only one day and in some of the weight classes they gave them a pound, and in other weight classes they gave them two pounds," said Gutches. "So we did not think it was run like other tournaments. We considered it to be like the (open to all comers) Best of the West Tournament or something like that."

The use of the ineligible wrestler in question, said Gutches, had nothing to do with winning, and the assumed name chosen involved a team-wide joke. It was in no way meant to circumvent the system, he said.

"That did not enter our minds," said Gutches. "In fact, we would've been happier if we could've not won maybe the last match or two and we would've gone out and done our thing out on the beach."

Art Lee, who has had five sons in Haga's program, described his experiences in the past 25 years observing the coach and mentor.

"I've seen a man that has always had the best interest of kids in mind," said Lee. "I've seen him discipline kids, and I've seen him reward kids. I've seen him counsel kids and bring kids along that would not have graduated unless he had counseled them. We all need a job, but when you get a teacher or a coach that's passionate about his work and wants to make a difference in their lives, you have a real teacher ... and that is Greg Haga."

Lastly, Muzzioli read a letter to the board written by the ineligible wrestler in question that described a misunderstanding over the eligibility issues stemming from a transfer inside Crater's small-school system and the confusion brought upon by different grading systems and terms.

"We feel that he has been put in this position without any fault of his own," she added.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

Crater wrestling supporter Won Bernhardt addresses Superintendent Randy Gravon and other Central Point School Board members on behalf of suspended coach Greg Haga during a meeting Tuesday night at the district office. - Jamie Lusch