Student-athletes on East Lansing High School’s girls varsity tennis team are asking why they are being put in the position again of having to choose between playing in the state championships or attending graduation.
This has happened repeatedly to the team and has left the girls on the team, the parents and the coach frustrated.
According to varsity tennis coach Cosette Buckberry, “We had a similar issue in 2019 and 2021,” with 2020 canceled due to the COVID pandemic. The team has made the state tournament for six out of the past eight seasons.
“In 2021, we had two teams who had to retire in the middle of their matches to get back to graduation on time,” Buckberry told ELi in an email interview. “It was tough to watch as a coach as well as upsetting and unfair to the seniors who worked hard all season to achieve their goal of making the state tournament, and then had to choose between two once-in-a-lifetime experiences.”
In 2019, ELi reported that “a major consideration” of when ELHS graduation is set “is what Michigan High school Athletic Association (MHSAA) events might conflict.” In January 2019, one of the organizers of ELHS graduation told ELi, “Even though our school may not qualify for the state event, we can’t really book a date where there’s an MHSAA activity if it limits our students from participating in graduation.”
But the girls tennis team has been struggling against date conflicts since then.
Superintendent Dori Leyko told ELi by email she had hoped to avoid the conflict this year.
“We initially had graduation scheduled at the [Michigan State University] Auditorium this spring – and moved it a week earlier to avoid this potential conflict with the MHSAA State Tennis Tournament,” Leyko said, “but then received notice from MSU that the auditorium was not going to be available for commencement ceremonies this year. So, we elected to move the ceremony to Breslin Center, but our preferred date was not available and June 2 was one of the few available dates.”
That’s the date the girls would be going to the state tournament in Midland. The matches are scheduled to be over at 4 p.m. and graduation is not until 7 p.m. But the matches often run late, making getting back in time for graduation a challenge.
Emily Baker, a parent of two ELHS girls tennis players, contacted ELi about the issue.
“This is a decision that no student athlete should have to make,” Baker said. “And a change needs to be made so that our students don’t have to make that decision.”
Baker’s daughter EmmaMae is a 16-year-old junior who has been on the varsity team for three years. EmmaMae explained to ELi she hopes next year to attend both her own graduation and the state competition and doesn’t want to be forced to choose as her teammates have been.
“I would like to attend graduation because my whole school career has built up to this,” she said. “I would also like to attend the state competition because I work hard all season and I want to show my team and myself that I can achieve anything….I’ve seen girls who had to forfeit the game to attend their graduation.”
EmmaMae notes the date conflict ends up impacting not just the seniors but also their teammates, particularly the girls who play doubles with the seniors. The rules don’t allow a sub-in of another player if a senior has to dash off to get to graduation.
With the date conflict, seniors end up watching the clock, trying to figure out if they can get their matches done before they have to rush back to East Lansing.
“And it was already stressing me out personally when I was a freshman, just watching it,” she said. “It must have been really hard for the seniors graduating.
“No high school team or extracurricular club should be affected by this type of conflict,” coach Buckberry said.
EmmaMae Baker believes this would never happen to, say, the football team. She says that while the school posts to social media about football, lacrosse and soccer, the district largely ignores the girls tennis team in spite of its consistent success.
Interim ELHS Principal Ashley Schwarzbek met with parents on April 10 to discuss the problem. At that meeting and elsewhere, parents have raised the question of whether this disproportionate impact on a girls team could represent a violation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.
Asked about this, Leyko told ELi on April 25 she had checked with the district’s attorney who “opined that the likelihood of an adverse Title IX finding is very low.”
“We recognize that both events are very important for students and their families,” Leyko added. “MHSAA schedules the tennis tournament and ELPS schedules graduation – we must make a decision on the date based on several considerations, none of which are discriminatory.”