The boys basketball team from Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter High School plays tonight at National Christian in Fort Washington. Chavez currently has a 16-10 record this season, its first as an independent.

Last year, in its winter sports round-up, the Washington Post named Markee Mazyck of Chavez as the player of the year in the Washington Charter School’s Athletic Association (WCSSA), the sports conference for DC charter schools, and identified Mazyck as a senior. Eligibility-wise, just as the Post indicated, he was a senior last year. But Mazyck is still playing at Chavez this season, and playing well enough to win the league best award all over again. If, that is, his school hadn’t abandoned the conference just so he could play high school ball another year.

The Chavez basketball story is an odd one. Anybody who views DC charter schools as the Wild West of the education realm could find some fodder here. But it’s also easy to put a sweet spin on the situation, where school officials threw out the rule book to help a kid out.

Folks from Chavez prefer the latter version.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” says Chavez athletic director Ernesto Natera. “This is a one-time deal.”

You can’t blame a student for wanting to keep his high school career going. Mazyck’s still attending Chavez and finishing up his diploma after some stumbles early on, says Natera. And, everybody agrees, he’s real good at basketball. So why wouldn’t he want to play on the basketball team again, and get an extra year of looks from college coaches?

You can blame the school for the situation, however, because the Chavez administrators knew the WCSSA rules and, one could argue, shouldn’t have bent ’em for one kid, especially a 6’4″, 225-pound kid whose athletic talents  gave him options not available to lesser ballers. The school’s coaches, for example, could have worked to get him into a prep school where fifth-year seniors are the norm. Or, if getting a college scholarship is the goal, shopped his highlights reel from last year’s player-of-the-year season a lot harder and longer. And though the Chavez contingent insists this is all for Mazyck, the school’s interests are conflicted: Having a great player and a good basketball program can be used to give the school a bigger name in the community, and make Chavez more attractive to prospective students, and athletes, who have a lot of charter schools to choose from.

But if Chavez did indeed decide to let the kid keep playing for the noblest of reasons, they did it the right way. Natera didn’t try to hide Mazyck’s fifth-year status from league brass, though that might have been pretty hard to do given his status as the WCSSA’s reigning player of the year. Before the season, Natera went to Don Cole, commissioner of the WCSSA, and said that Chavez wanted to give the player an extra year of basketball eligibility. Natera says he pointed out to Cole that Mazyck played very little basketball his freshman year of high school, and that the kid’s birthday — he turned 18  years old in late summer, according to school records — puts him well within the age limitations for D.C. athletics.

Cole told Natera that the league couldn’t allow that situation.

“It’s a mentality that shouldn’t even be here,” says Cole, recalling the anything-goes situation that was uncovered a few years back with Marriott Hospitality Charter School’s basketball program. “We’re trying to clean up the image, and a lot of people look at charter school athletics as some sort of semi-pro set-up, where anybody can play. We don’t want that.”

So Natera took his boys team out of the league, but left the Chavez girls basketball team and all other Chavez sports programs in WCSSA. Natera says he intends to apply for readmission of the Chavez boys team to the league next season.

But to have a legitimate basketball season for 2009-2010, Chavez needed the blessing of Marcus Ellis, the new DC Public Schools athletic director. Though DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee briefly touted fifth-year eligibility early in her tenure here, she backed off putting such an allowance in place after learning that athletic officials in most jurisdictions (including Maryland and Virginia) not only don’t allow fifth year students to play sports, but also prohibit their schools from playing teams from jurisdictions where fifth-year players are allowed. Without DCPS’ blessing, Chavez would have had a hard time putting together a full schedule.

Despite Cole’s objection and the rules against fifth-year players in DC, Ellis sanctioned Chavez’s boys basketball team.

“I can’t figure out why [Ellis is sanctioning] schools for DCPS,” says Cole. “I don’t know if he looked at everybody’s transcript and said he doesn’t care, or if it’s just laziness, or if he’s just saying, ‘Hey, they’re charter schools! Let’s let them do whatever they want!’ I don’t understand that outlook, to tell you the truth.”

Natera says he’s done nothing wrong. Going by school years alone, as Natera points out, there’s a lot of games being played with eligibility in prep sports. For example, one of the top players on the local scene, North Carolina Tar Heel to-be Kendall Marshall, now a senior at O’Connell  was in sixth grade when I first wrote about him.

That was seven years ago, for a story titled “The Class of 2009.”

“Do the math, that’s what people say to me all the time about kids [and eligibility],” Natera says. “People reclassify kids for sports all over, that’s been going on for so long around here. You do it in 8th grade, it’s fine — but ninth grade, it’s not? It’s something different? I can tell you this: We don’t reclassify students [for athletic reasons] at this school. Never. Nobody. We don’t want any stigma. And my kid is the right age. Other kids are older than he is and still playing. This is a hardship case, a special case. And if the kid sucked, nobody would care, and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

So why did DCPS sanction the Chavez team this season? Marcus Ellis of DCPS initially responded to Washington City Paper’s request for an interview about charter school eligibility and sanctioning, but asked for all questions to be put in writing and emailed to him and to a DCPS communications official. Those instructions were complied with, but neither Ellis nor DCPS responded.

Natera says he’d do it all again.

“We did it right, and we did it for the right reasons,” he says. “I got sanctioned. We put it out there. Everybody knew it.”

Not everybody.

“I found out a couple days before we played them about the fifth year player, when people in the local community told me,” says Martin Keithline, head basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Bishop McNamara, a Forestville school whose squad faced Chavez early this season. “They were sanctioned by DC, so, at that time, there wasn’t much we could do, with the game already scheduled. But if we knew, we wouldn’t have scheduled them. What could we do?”

McNamara was defeated by Chavez, 67-57. Mazyck had 32 points.

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