Sources: Middleton knew hockey player was ineligible

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Middleton hockey coach Steffon Walby used an ineligible player throughout the season.

Middleton’s hockey program applied for an eligibility waiver for senior forward Joe O'Reilly in October, 2019. The WIAA denied the Cardinals’ request, but Middleton coach Steffon Walby played O'Reilly throughout the season anyway.

That approach eventually caused Middleton to forfeit its win over Tomah/Sparta in a WIAA Division 1 regional semifinal game on Feb. 18. The Cardinals, who went 14-10 during the regular season, will likely be stripped of all their other wins, as well.

Multiple sources confirmed these details to the Times-Tribune in the past week.

“It was a pretty cut and dried eligibility case,” said one source, who requested anonymity. “They were told not to play him and they went ahead and played him anyhow.”

WIAA deputy director Wade Labecki is responsible for eligibility issues. Labecki said that after Middleton inquired about O’Reilly’s eligibility, he ruled against it and sent an email to Middleton athletic director Bob Joers that included the phrase “no participation.”

According to Labecki, Joers said he then forwarded that email to Walby.

Joers refused to answer any questions about the fiasco.

Instead, Director of Communications Perry Hibner said: “We work extremely hard to make sure the rules are followed. This was not a malicious attempt on the part of the athletic department or boys hockey program to circumvent the rules. Our investigation continues to determine how this could happen.’’

O'Reilly told the Times-Tribune that he was never informed that he was ineligible.

“I was not involved in the process of proving my eligibility and no one approached me with the fact that I wasn't,” O'Reilly said. 

Joers learned that he had pancreatic cancer at roughly the same time O'Reilly's waiver was being denied. Joers immediately reduced his workload to just a couple hours a day, which could have played a role in O'Reilly continuing to skate.

At greater issue was Walby’s decision to continue using O'Reilly. Three area coaches told the Times-Tribune they suspected throughout the season that O'Reilly was ineligible — and that it would eventually come back and haunt the Cardinals.

That’s exactly what happened when Middleton was tossed from the postseason.

“This is a terrible way to have to close our season,” Hibner said.

Many are now wondering, how did it ever come to this?

O'Reilly had competed for the Cardinals in past seasons, but moved out of the district in 2018-’19. He moved back to the district this year, but his family remained out of state.

Under WIAA rules, this type of transfer calls for one year of non-varsity competition for the transferring student. Only through a successful appeal can an athlete participate.

The WIAA received an anonymous tip about O'Reilly on Feb. 19, less than 24 hours after Middleton's playoff opener. The Cardinals were then stripped of their playoff win, and Tomah/Sparta replaced Middleton in the regional final against Sun Prairie.

“We were made aware of a concern and upon conclusion of our internal investigation needed to acknowledge the inadvertent use of an ineligible player, which we then reported to the WIAA,” Hibner said.

What remains a mystery, though, is why Walby felt he could play by his own set of rules?

Walby was named Middleton’s head coach in April, 2014, after the controversial dismissal of Steve and Tony Libert.

Walby, a Madison Edgewood graduate, had extensive coaching experience in professional minor leagues during and after his 11-year playing career. But Walby was fired in 2011, just months after guiding the Mississippi Surge to the East Coast Hockey League championship, and moved back to the Madison area.

“Steffon will be great for everyone,” Joers said after he hired Walby. “Coaching-wise, he brings a presence. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can tell right away. He’s older, mature, and someone who can lead a team.”

Walby went 53-16-2 in his first three seasons (.761) with many of the players the Liberts had groomed. In the last three years, though, Middleton is 39-30-3 (.563).

That record will take a hit, too, if Middleton is forced to forfeit its wins from this season, as expected.

The Cardinals also reached the WIAA state tournament three times between 2003-’11 under the Liberts. Middleton’s 2011 team reached the state championship game, the best finish in school history.

Under Walby, Middleton lost in the sectional finals in both 2015 and 2016. In the four years since, the Cardinals haven’t advanced past a sectional semifinal and were ousted in regionals twice.

In addition, this mess will go down as one of the greatest eyesores in program history. It could eventually cost Walby his job, as well.

“Some coaches today run their programs like it’s junior hockey, not high school hockey,” one source said. “It looks like that was the case with Middleton. That’s not what high school sports are supposed to be about.”


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