At this intersection of legal settlements and high school sports, the students end up losing

Trouble invariably lurks at the confluence of the legal and education systems. There, off to the side, in a fetid and festering pool, lies what's left when an 8-foot wave of legalese splashes over a 6-foot wall of common sense and is then left to devolve into brackishness and putridity by public apathy.

Such is the case at Cholla High School, where a miscarriage of justice disguised as jurisprudence laced with compromise is about to cause serious damage. Oddly enough, this particular miscarriage of justice was supposed to be a remedy for a previous, unrelated miscarriage of justice, but will now only exacerbate things, with the unintended consequences falling on a group of student-athletes, their families and, eventually, the entire Cholla community.

Ten years ago, Barry Wilson was the basketball coach at Tucson High. He had a series of powerhouse teams, led by such prep notables as Sean Harris (who went on to star for the nationally ranked UA football teams of the mid-1990s); Eric Langford, who was later the Arizona Junior College Player of the Year at Eastern Arizona College; and Graham Davies and Rob Tatum, who both went on to UTEP.

Wilson was not without his critics, however; while his teams would win 20 games year in and year out, Tucson High didn't win championships. Still, Wilson's teams were always in contention for state playoff berths, but a storm of parental discontent was brewing. One of the major instigators was a high-level Tucson Unified School District employee who should have known better, and the other was a loudmouth know-nothing whose out-of-control children sent ripples of discord and nastiness through the district for nearly a decade. For reasons that are to this day unknown, the district canned Barry Wilson and started a revolving-door situation at Tucson High that has only recently begun to stabilize under former Sahuaro star and Dick McConnell protégé, Gary Lewis.

Wilson sued the district for unlawful termination and won. Part of the settlement gave Wilson the first shot at any of the next three coaching positions that came open in the district, which has nine high schools. Santa Rita, Sahuaro, Rincon, Palo Verde and Pueblo have coaches who have been in their respective positions for more than 100 years, combined. For reasons involving the aforementioned District One higher-up/parent, Wilson couldn't take the Sabino job, and he was also banned from the Tucson job. That left only midtown Catalina, where well-intentioned young coaches go to watch their careers arrive stillborn, or the once-proud Cholla program, with a gym named for alumnus Sean Elliott and a state championship banner from the early '90s hanging on the wall--a program that had since fallen into complete disarray.

At the start of the 2004-2005 school year, Cholla had no basketball coach. The athletic director called on a young law student, Matt Poirier, to head the program on an interim basis. Poirier had played high school ball for Brian Peabody (who in turn had played for McConnell) and had played in four straight state championship games. He was the right man for the job, although it didn't necessarily appear that way at first. Exactly five kids showed up for the first day of practice. The Chargers lost every game they played in November and December, and most of them in January, as well. But they were getting better. They were learning discipline and team play, and the margins of defeat were steadily shrinking.

They finally broke through with a win late in January and then followed with another. After a close loss, they beat tough Ironwood Ridge and lost a heartbreaker to powerhouse Santa Rita (which would go on to reach the 4A State championship game).

The season ended on a serious upswing, and the kids got right back into it. They did off-season conditioning in the spring and then joined summer leagues at Salpointe and Flowing Wells. They were holding their own with the big guys, and even when they got overwhelmed by a spectacular Nogales team, they played hard to the very end, keeping their mouths shut and their heads focused.

Not long after that game, Poirier gathered the players and their parents together to give them the word. He was out, and Barry Wilson would be taking over the program. There were tears and angry words and vows for their voices to be heard. Assistant Coach Jesse Lugo, who played basketball for Cholla and was a member of its first graduating class in 1973, is trying to organize an effort to keep Poirier in place, but admits it'll be an uphill battle.

Some might scoff at the significance of a coaching change, but almost all of us have had that one person who had a profound effect on our lives, who nudged us in the right direction through humor or determination or sheer force of will. Matt Poirier could very well have been that person for these Cholla kids.

I have no idea what Barry Wilson will do for the kids. I have every idea of what Matt Poirier was doing before bureaucracy raised its ugly and uncaring head.

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