The events surrounding the end of the Coastal 1B League on Dec. 21 in Aberdeen were varied, but three issues were stated and each of them stemmed from one significant incident.
In a summary of documents, reports and emails gathered through Freedom of Information inquiries, the issues — sportsmanship, compliance/eligibility and safety — brought three actions, two of which were postseason bans for the Taholah track & field program and for the school’s entire athletic program.
The third action was the dissolution of the league, turning the six schools in the league into independent programs.
On Jan. 10, lawyers for the Taholah School District filed an appeal of both actions taken against its athletic programs and an appeal against the league’s dissolution. Jerry Walther, Taholah’s head girls basketball coach and interim athletic director, noted that he was unable to comment, based on the advice of attorneys.
On Nov. 8, the football teams from Taholah and Mary M. Knight met at the Matlock school on a wet Saturday afternoon to determine the league champion.
At halftime, four Mason County Sheriff deputies arrived at the game on the request of the in-game officials and watched the second half. It was later learned that a gun threat was issued by an adult in the Taholah spectator section toward one of the on-field officials.
All parties agreed, however, that no weapons were found.
“On Nov. 3, our association worked a game between Taholah and Mary M. Knight,” head referee Randy Edwards said in an email to league officials. “During the first half, fans from Taholah were being very abusive. It finally reached a point that our linesman heard threats that they were carrying guns in their cars and were going to use them.”
Edwards ended the email by saying that no weapons were seen at any time.
A case was opened with the Mason County Sheriff’s Office, but was closed soon thereafter.
“We got a call that there was a threat made by Taholah fans to the officials over disputed calls,” Deputy James Ward, one of the responding deputies to the game, said. “They wanted us there to address any specific threats, but we didn’t hear anything.
“One of our other deputies escorted the referees off the field,” Ward added. “It was incident-free and he went to go get a burger. Honestly, I enjoyed the rest of the game. There was crap talking from both sides. If we were just there for precautionary reasons, it seemed to work. I didn’t see or hear anything.”
The game was not cancelled when the threat was heard because Knight officials didn’t learn about the threat until days later, according to emails exchanged following the incident. They were told that the officials asked for the sheriff deputies to watch for trouble, but were never told why.
League officials, including Mary M. Knight superintendent Beth Daneker, were very concerned. In future league meetings minutes, several of the league schools noted reluctance to host the Chitwhins or travel to Taholah over safety concerns.They also asked for remedies and solutions from Taholah to alleviate their concerns.
The majority of league members, however, contended the remedies offered by the school at a Nov. 26 league meeting didn’t satisfy those concerns.
On Oct. 20, league rivals Wishkah and Taholah met in football for the second time this season with an important contest at Stewart Field in Aberdeen. Both teams entertained postseason aspirations and the winner of the game would eliminate the other from playoff contention. This was a highly charged event and emotions ran high.
Just after the start of the second half, a hit on Wishkah quarterback Keigan Gardiner resulted in the player’s helmet being knocked off. Gardiner was injured on the play, but returned to the action.
On the north side of the field on the Taholah sideline, an altercation was seen between Taholah coaches and the game’s chain gang workers, who were volunteers and parents from Wishkah.
Those involved were Taholah assistant football coach Shaun Straka and chain gang members Eric Gardiner and Mike Mitchell, both Wishkah parents. All three wrote letters to league and district officials outlining what happened. Another Taholah assistant coach, William James also wrote what he heard and saw that day. Taholah head coach Donald Waugh was not named in any of the complaints.
Accounts of the incident vary drastically.
Eric Gardiner, Keigan’s father, wrote that Straka said “that kid is a cheap-shot (expletive) and deserves everything he gets.” Gardiner summoned game manager, Aberdeen teacher William Rabung, to get a replacement for himself on the chain gang.
“(I) told him what the coach had said and also stated that I did not want to be a part of the chain crew anymore,” Gardiner said in a letter addressed to league and district officials. “(Rabung) said he would get someone else. When a replacement arrived, I finally approached Coach Straka and told him that I heard what he said and didn’t appreciate it.”
Mitchell backed up Gardiner’s claim in his letter to league officials, adding “the other parent assisting the chains that day had to leave his post and be replaced because the threats were too much to ignore.”
Straka, who has since been removed as a coach and athletic director, insisted the incident stemmed from a misunderstanding.
He and James, however, contended they were “concerned for the player’s safety” after the hit and inquired whether he was playing hurt or may have a concussion from the hit. Both denied saying anything negative about the player and noted the aggressiveness of Eric Gardiner toward them. Straka also denied that he nor any other coach would teach or ask for illegal hits from their players.
“I expressed my concern that (Keigan) was hurt,” Straka wrote. “One of the chain-gang members turned to me and said ‘f*** you, that’s my son and I do not appreciate you being excited that he is hurt.’ I responded by saying that there was a misunderstanding and that I was not happy he was hurt, but concerned for his safety. He then started taking steps towards me in an aggressive manner.”
In emails to the district, other schools inside and outside of the league also expressed concerns about Taholah’s football program. One school, the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver, has forfeited games to Taholah over the last three seasons, citing safety issues.
Taholah junior sprinter Justin Curleybear competed in the state 1B track & field meet at Eastern Washington University on May 26, 2012. Curleybear took fifth in the long jump, sixth in the 200-meter sprint, eighth in the 100m sprint and was a member of the Chitwhins’ 4x400m relay team that finished eighth.
According to a WIAA fact-finding report published by District I director Jim Piccolo, misleading information was provided to the state agency for the waiver of the WIAA’s 50 percent rule for Curleybear’s postseason eligibility by Straka, then the school’s track coach and athletic director.
In March, Larry and Gail McCord, along with brothers Justin and Keanu Curleybear and other family members, began a two-day drive home from Nenana, Alaska to Taholah, according to information supplied by the family to the WIAA fact-finding officials.
The family had moved up to Alaska after the Curleybear brothers finished the 2010-11 school year at Taholah for work and were now returning home. The family car broke down outside of Anchorage, according to the family, and they asked in a letter to Quinault Tribal for emergency funds to help them.
The family wanted to transfer the Curleybears into Taholah by April 1, but the two were still enrolled at Nenana City Public Schools until April 12. On March 26, two reservations with Alaska Airlines were purchased for Justin and Keanu for a flight out of Fairbanks to Seattle on April 12.
On April 16, the Curleybear brothers were enrolled at Taholah and Straka, as the athletic director, began talks with league and district officials to allow the Curleybears eligibility for postseason meets. Under the WIAA Handbook (Section 18.3.2), student-athletes must participate in 50 percent or more of the regular season in order to be eligible for postseason play. Only the WIAA can grant a waiver of the rule, as District IV director Rich Frazer pointed out to Straka on April 18.
On May 7, Straka called the WIAA and began an email exchange with assistant executive director Cindy Adsit. Straka told Adsit in an email later that day about the family’s initial driving trip, that the Curleybear brothers began practice at the end of the first week of April and he was asking for a hardship waiver of the 50 percent rule for them.
The next day, after Adsit forwarded the email to executive director Mike Colbrese and received a letter of support for the two Curleybear brothers from Taholah School, the waiver was granted for postseason eligibility. Colbrese followed up with a letter on the appeal, “provided they meet all other conditions of eligibility.”
On May 14, then-Coastal League president and Lake Quinault athletic director Keith Samplawski called Adsit and told her that the Curleybears didn’t drive home to Taholah in late March, but flew home in April.
A Wishkah student who was a friend of the Curleybears showed a Facebook timeline from Justin Curleybear’s account to Wishkah athletic director Mark Maxfield, who forwarded screen shots of the timeline to Samplawski and Frazer. The Facebook timeline showed the Curleybears still in Alaska on April 12 and arrived at Sea-Tac International Airport later that day, amid banter with friends and family in Alaska and Taholah.
Maxfield, in a timeline letter in the report, said that he called Straka to tell him what he was shown and faxed him the information. Frazer, in an email to Maxfield, said that Adsit told him “they would (have) made them eligible even if they had told the truth.”
Straka and Frazer exchanged emails over the false information, with Straka writing, “Everything I submitted to the WIAA was fact.” One hour later, Straka sent an email to Adsit apologizing for the “miscommunication. It was not intended to be misleading.”
“After reading the report, I don’t believe it was a simple miscommuncation,” Samplawski said. “I felt the dates didn’t add up. I didn’t think the truth was told at that point either. That was the conclusion that Mark and I got after talking to Straka. When I looked through the handbook, eligibility (based on the 50 percent rule) should not have been granted if they were given accurate information. But, with the info they got, I think it was within (the WIAA’s) right to grant eligibility.”
“There has been a lot of rumors that Justin was ineligible all season and that he lied,” Straka said. “The WIAA states that if you move from out-of-state, you are eligible. Even though I made the mistake as a first-year athletic director of not asking more specific questions to the Curleybears about how they got home, it is irrelevant. Whether he flew or drove, (based on the WIAA ruling) he was eligible. He continues to be eligible.
“I’m not perfect and I’ve made mistakes,” Straka added, “but they weren’t intentional or malicious and I wasn’t trying to hide it. If I screw up, I’m an adult and I’m going to step up and admit it.”
On Sept. 23, the WIAA Executive Board, on the advise of Coastal League and District IV officials, authorized the fact-finding mission on the Curleybear eligibility case, which was given to Piccolo. The report, presented to the board on Dec. 2, determined that Straka had “several opportunities to act appropriately dealing with the … situation.”
The report finishes: “I believe that Mr. Straka was not totally forthright and honest. Mr. Straka’s ability of leaving out details and not asking questions leads a person to question his motive. Only when he is confronted with the facts and details does he admit to his mistake.”
Straka confirmed last week that he is no longer an employee of the Taholah School as a wrestling and track & field coach.