Legal case

Parents and supporters of the Olive Branch girls’ basketball team had hoped a court order would allow the team to play in this week’s MHSAA 5A-1 district tournament at Center Hill.

However, a Hinds County Chancery Court ruling Monday has granted a motion by the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) to dismiss the lawsuit filed by parents of two Lady Quistor basketball players.

At the same time, Chancellor Denise Owens’ ruling found some areas in the original issue between the MHSAA and the Olive Branch program that she called into question.

Zanita Shipp and Natasha Bailey had filed the lawsuit against the MHSAA, which was heard Jan. 29. They contended the Association’s decision to remove the team’s 6A state championship won last March and make this year’s team ineligible for postseason play this year was an excessive penalty and denied their daughters the chance to play with potential college coaches and scouts watching them in action for this year’s postseason.

The original action against the Olive Branch program by the MHSAA came after it determined roster player Taylor Woodhouse, then an eighth-grader attending Olive Branch Middle School, was ineligible to play for Olive Branch on residency grounds, since she lived in Southaven. District rules allow children of DCS employees to attend school anywhere in the district. The MHSAA, however, requires participation only in the school attendance center where the student-athlete actually lives in.

Woodhouse has since transferred to Southaven High School, was made eligible to play by the MHSAA and is playing for Southaven this season.

Woodhouse was added to the Olive Branch roster late last season by coach Jason Thompson after her middle school season was completed, but saw very little action and did not play in the state championship game, which Olive Branch won on the floor over Starkville 57-54.

Starkville was given the state championship when Olive Branch was declared ineligible.

In Owens’ ruling, she ruled that Shipp and Bailey could not sue the MHSAA. The contract between the district and the MHSAA in the Association’s handbook does not provide for parents to be “intended beneficiaries,” thus do not have standing to sue the Association.

The ruling states that Olive Branch High School should have pursued the issue as the proper party, not parents of players.

The court did side with Shipp and Bailey in pointing out that there was dual legal representation in the original matter between the school district and the MHSAA, because DCS school board attorney James Keith has also represented the MHSAA in legal matters. “Possibly this decision by Olive Branch High School not to pursue was reached because they lacked legal representation,” Owens wrote. “The court finds this conflict of interest disturbing. The court finds the plaintiffs’ rationale that the school and students were not fairly protected because of the conflict of interest persuasive. The court recommends this arrangement be reconsidered in the interest of fair and effective representation.”

Owens also wrote in the opinion that she found discrepancies in penalty assignments by the MHSAA that were presented by the plaintiffs “egregious,” however she finished by stating the MHSAA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit had been granted.

Victoria Washington, a Southaven attorney representing Shipp and Bailey in the matter, said in an email Tuesday they had not determined whether to proceed further with the lawsuit.

Thompson, when asked for his reaction, expressed his disappointment in a text.

"I'm crushed, heartbroken and very sad that the seniors will not be allowed to end their season by either playing for it (championship) or getting beat by a team," Thompson said. "I'm in tears suffering from having to break this devastating news to the girls and ask that the community will keep the girls in their prayers. I will reserve my other thoughts and opinions."

Former Lady Quistors’ coach Blake Jones, who took Olive Branch to back-to-back state championship appearances followed by a second-round playoff appearance before he left prior to the 2016-17 season, called the matter “a terrible situation for everyone involved,” adding, “When you’re dealing with the emotions of kids, there’s a fine line that you have to consider and I absolutely hate it for the girls and for Jason.”

Bob Bakken: sports@desototimestribune.com

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