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Park’s Delk gets injunction against SSAC for soccer

WHEELING – Merritt Delk is off to a very impressive start in her high school soccer career at Wheeling Park. The freshman has already scored 23 goals this season against some of West Virginia’s best competition.

She’s also a key contributor for Century United 05 Girls Gold – a soccer travel team based in Pittsburgh – that plays in the Mid-America Conference of the Girls Academy League.

Following a preliminary injunction granted by Ohio County Circuit Judge Jason Cuomo against the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, Delk — effective immediately — will have the opportunity to play both for Park and her travel team for at least the remainder of the season.

Prior to the injunction, Delk could only play and practice with her high school team because of SSAC rule 127-2-10.

The rule reads, “During the academic year and while a member of a school team, a student shall neither participate, which includes, but is not limited to, fund-raising activities, team picture, tryouts, etc., on any formally organized non-school team in the same sport, nor shall the student compete as an individual unattached in non-school formally organized competition in the same sport.”

The rule, however, doesn’t apply to “individual” sports such as cross country, golf, swimming, tennis, track and field and wrestling. There are a few exceptions including one that stipulates an athlete can’t miss a school-sponsored contest involving a team in that sport to take part in a travel competition.

Merritt Delk’s parents — David and Elizabeth — said they exhausted all options before pursuing the preliminary injunction.

“It’s disappointing that it had to get to this point,” David Delk, a Wheeling attorney, said. “We were reasonable and accommodating, but it simply seems arbitrary that (the SSAC) turned us down, when there are kids in other sports who can do what Merritt wants to do.”

When reached for comment, SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said, “we don’t comment on ongoing litigation.”

The first step the Delk family took was meeting with the SSAC during a recent board of directors meeting with a request for a waiver.

“We appeared on a phone conference and our request was denied without an explanation as to why,” David Delk said.

Because of the time constraints involved with both the Wheeling Park and Century United seasons, the Delks bypassed the next option, which is an appeals process through the West Virginia Department of Education.

“By the time that would have been heard, (Merritt) would have missed the club games that are remaining,” David Delk said.

The SSAC cites things as conflicting schedules and risk of injury as some of the reasons for the rule.

The majority of the Century United games are held on Sundays, which is a day the SSAC forbids high school teams to play or practice.

“If there was ever a conflict of both teams having a game on the same day, she was going to play for Wheeling Park,” David Delk said. “We start (West Virginia) playoffs (this) week and none of the club games are on days with high school games scheduled.”

The Delks also argued the injury portion of the rule that athletes are allowed to play other sports out of the season. For instance, high school soccer players can play in fall softball or basketball league games — just not for a club soccer team.

Merritt is the only West Virginia resident on her Century United team. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association doesn’t have a rule that disallows its athletes from competing both for the interscholastic and non-interscholastic teams simultaneously.

Prior to gaining the injunction, Merritt Delk followed the West Virginia rule to the letter, according to her father. She attended her Century team’s practices, but simply watched.

“Merritt was very happy” to receive the preliminary injunction, David Delk said. “Before we went through all of this, we asked what she wanted to do and she said, ‘I want to be able to do the same things my teammates in Pittsburgh can do.'”

While this type of rule doesn’t exist in Pennsylvania, similar rules are in place in other states throughout the country.

Through a survey conducted by the National Federation of High Schools in Indianapolis, 19 states have a rule similar to West Virginia, 19 have a rule in place with a certain date set for non-interscholastic competition and 12 didn’t respond.

“The thing about that survey was it didn’t disclose if states have exceptions because the biggest problem is if some (sports) get exceptions and not others,” David Delk said.

Prior to this season, there had never been an issue between the Girls Academy League and players from West Virginia because the league didn’t run concurrently with the high school season.

“We knew about this rule, but even when our older daughter, Emma, played it wasn’t an issue because her club team didn’t do anything during the high school season,” David Delk said. “New leagues start every two to three years and come with a new governing body and this is a 10-month league with some (play) during the high school season.”

David Delk doesn’t know the timetable for when the formal hearing will be set. He estimated it would be “two to six months down the line.”

“My best guess is she will finish the season under the preliminary injunction,” Delk said.

Should the preliminary injunction become permanent, Merritt Delk would be clear to play for both the Patriots and her club team for the next three seasons without issue. Should it be denied, she will be back under the rule, denying her the opportunity to play for her club team.

“I suspect whichever part loses will appeal it to the (West Virginia) Supreme Court,” David Delk said.

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