Gardner gets reprieve from MIAA, can participate in winter tournaments

Following an apology from the Gardner mayor and superintendent, the MIAA reversed its January decision and will allow Gardner High School teams to participate in the upcoming winter tournaments.

Saying their decision “was no easy matter” and done with “serious reservations,” MIAA executive director Dick Neal informed Gardner in a letter Monday. In January, the board banned Gardner from winter tournament participation after the Central Mass. school defied MIAA sanctions following violations in the swim program.

Gardner had been ordered to return the 2012 South-Central Swim trophy and demonstrate it had plans to prevent future violations. After imposing the ban on participation in the winter tournaments, the MIAA said the school risked being barred from spring tournaments as well and be denied MIAA membership for the 2013-14 season.

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The trophy was returned but it was too late to save Gardner’s winter teams, until Monday.

“Recognizing that the core mission of the MIAA is to promote educational athletic opportunities within our member schools, the MIAA Board of Directors is reluctantly removing that portion of your sanctions that would have excluded student participation in MIAA winter tournaments.”

But Neal continued to express the board’s disappointment in Gardner, even in the tone and content of the letter of apology sent by Mayor Mark Hawke.

“The nature of your letter serves to exacerbate the frustration you have caused the board for the past 12 months, and it has made most difficult the board’s willingness to accept it as a reasonable rescue attempt on behalf of the students you have placed in harm’s way,” Neal said.

Neal also made it clear that he expects the mayor to stay away from Gardner High athletics.

“Moving forward, it is important for you to limit your involvement and interference with the leadership and management of the GHS athletic program by leaving those responsibilities solely with the high school principal and athletic director.’’

Neal added that the board needs to be assured in writing by June 1 of the “strategies to ensure a sea change” in the Gardner athletic program. Without the letter the board will require a meeting as to hear why it shouldn’t reject Gardner’s membership in the MIAA for the 2013-14 school year.