They refused to be benched

Two Mohave High School girls join boys basketball team after girls team cancelled due to playing a graduated girl in a game

The first day of basketball season started much like any other for Mojave High School.

The boys and girls teams had home games scheduled against Frazier Mountain, and both rosters were somewhat thin – the common malady small schools like Mojave often suffer.

Neither team came away with a victory that day, the first of December 2016, and each player and coach on both rosters went to sleep that night waiting for their next game in just a few days.

But that next game never came for the girls.

The day after their game against Frazier Mountain, Mojave’s athletic director, George Pulos, informed the team that the rest of its preseason games would be cancelled because an ineligible player suited up for the Mustangs the previous night. Then-girls coach Patricia Burdick gave the girl a jersey and allowed her to play after asking Frazier Mountain’s coach if her participating would be OK, multiple Mojave sources with knowledge of the situation said.

After Mojave returned from Christmas break, Pulos gave more news to the girls: The team would be dissolved completely, thus ending the 2016-17 season for the girls basketball team after just one game.

“I was kind of disappointed because it is my senior year, so I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play,” Mojave senior Amy Tweedt said, adding that she also felt “saddened” when the girls team dissolved.

Freshman Janiell Hernandez used the same words – “disappointed” and “sad” – to describe her reaction the moment she heard the team was no more. Hernandez felt that the team was being unfairly blamed for Burdick’s decision to play the ineligible player, who had already graduated from Mojave.

The team knew that the player was not a student, but did not raise any objections, Tweedt said.

But Pulos and Mojave Principal Scott Small found out about the incident the next day, and reacted with apoplexy. When asked if he felt upset about what happened, Pulos said, “That’s putting it mildly.”

“I haven’t recovered from that,” Pulos said.

Pulos and Small called Rainer Wulf, a CIF Southern Section assistant commissioner, to report the infraction, they said. Wulf told them the situation was “serious” and asked for a letter detailing what the school’s solution to the rule-breaking would be.

However, Thom Simmons, director of communications for the CIF-SS, wrote in an email that Wulf had “no recollection of talking to anybody at Mojave High School” – administration or otherwise – about “any CIF-SS sports violation.”

Pulos and Small were adamant that the dissolution of the girls team had more to do with lack of numbers and less to do with playing an ineligible student. Pulos lamented the struggle he faces every year in attempting to field teams in every sport other than soccer.

Hernandez, however, didn’t buy that reasoning.

“They were trying to give the excuse that we didn’t have enough players,” Hernandez said.

Tweedt said the team was told by Pulos that the cancellation of the girls’ season was the direct result of the ineligible girl playing in the team’s first game.

In Small’s eyes, the coach who let the ineligible girl play did so because of Mojave’s culture of inclusion.

“I don’t think it was anyone’s intention to do it for, like, cheating or something like that,” Small said. “This whole family thing, sometimes you forget the rules and I think that’s what really was the motivation.”

Burdick, who has also coached Mojave’s softball team for several years, said she would not answer any questions regarding the incident because “it’s private.”

Making lemonade out of lemons

With the girls team defunct, Tweedt and Hernandez found themselves at a loss. But they soon heard some good news.

Both girls were given the option of joining the boys team. Tweedt quickly agreed, feeling relieved that she would get to face tougher competition, she said.

Hernandez also relished the opportunity to have the experience of joining the boys.

“I was excited, happy to play again,” Hernandez said.

Tweedt started on the boys team and also served as one of its captains, a title bestowed on her by first-year head coach Josh Sexton.

Tweedt led by example on a team that mainly consisted of underclassmen boys, Sexton said.

“She’s always the first one to step up and do a drill,” Sexton said of Tweedt. “She has some background knowledge of the game. So when I’m explaining something or teaching something new, a lot of the time she has at least a basic understanding of what I’m talking about, so she’ll be the first one to step up and do something.”

Hernandez said she and Tweedt developed a close relationship through their time playing together. They now talk every day, she said.

“It was nice having another girl being able to go through the experience with me,” Hernandez said. “She helped me because she had more experience in basketball than I did. She would pretty much guide me during our practices or when we would play, tell me what I was doing wrong or what I could do better.”

Sexton said Tweedt and Hernandez were the only two from the girls team that showed interest in continuing to play this season, and that they committed from the first day they showed up to practice with the boys. He said the boys embraced the girls when they joined the team.

“They’ve taken it extrememly well,” Sexton said. “Better than I could’ve ever imagined. They’ve been very welcoming.”

Mojave junior Matthew Riley, who played on the boys team, said many of the players underestimated the girls’ ability to play basketball, and were surprised by the talents they showed. He learned not to underestimate girls and that “they’re just as tough as the guys.”

“I think it brought us together more as a group and as a team,” Riley said. “I think it was an eye-opener for most of us, too.”

Tweedt said she enjoyed playing on the boys team this season.

“I think it’s fun playing with guys because they are better than girls, so it helps me better myself,” Tweedt said.

Pulos and Small both said a girl has never played on a boys team at Mojave before this season. Sexton commended the athletic department for allowing the girls to play with the boys.

“They essentially made lemonade out of lemons,” Sexton said. “The girls team had, if I remember correctly, seven or eight student-athletes, and these two girls showed a lot of courage to come out. I think it says the same thing about our athletic department as well – it just showed a lot of courage just to kind of go through with it.”

A Mojave female student-athlete has joined a boys team in the past, Pulos said. A couple of years ago, the softball team was dissolved due to lack of available players, and one softball player joined the baseball team for the rest of the season.

Tweedt had no qualms about joining up with the boys. She just wanted to play the game she loves for one more year.

“I just wanted to play basketball,” Tweedt said. “I didn’t really care who I played with.”