SEFFNER, Fla. - It's a subject that often results in bitter rumors and allegations of cheating: How do some Bay Area high schools maintain championship caliber football teams year after year replacing top players who graduate with new top players?
The Armwood Hawks started their season televised nationally on ESPN. They're ranked third in the nation. They haven't just beaten every team they've played so far. In most cases, they've destroyed them.
For the players and their parents, it doesn't get any better than this said Sonny Hester, the former head of compliance for the Florida High School Athletic Association.
"Parents believe...If they are seen on ESPN it gives them a better chance for a scholarship," Hester said.
Armwood receives national exposure because it’s ranked number one in the state with the highest winning percentage of any team in Hillsborough County over the last five years. But some coaches and administrators are openly questioning how Armwood and other schools seem to attract the best players year after year, and the I-Team has uncovered an example that could threaten the schools quest for a state championship.
"Do you ever wonder how some schools seem to come up with the best players year after year after year?” We asked Hillsborough County Athletic Director Lanness Robinson. “Absolutely, and we check into those students when there information that says there might be an issue."
While Florida allows students to choose their schools, the Florida High School Athletic Association bans transfers for purely athletic reasons.
But it's the exceptions to the rules which, head coaches like Robinson High School’s Mike DePue believe, are like a gaping hole in a defense.
"Every year you see the transfers and they are going on right now. How did they end up doing it? There's a mercenary attitude."
FHSAA rules say an athlete can transfer and be eligible to play for their new school if there a "Full and Complete Move" from their former home providing the following occurs:
"If one of those rules is not met, you are in violation of the rule,” said Hester.
They are rules, we learned, officials are now examining in the case of Senior Jack Lightsey, a 6'3", 260-pound offensive lineman. Records show Lightsey transferred from Orlando's Dr. Philips High School to Armwood, 65-miles and two counties away, on March 29th.
He played in the school's Spring football game even though his parents Tom and Shelly continue to own their Orlando home, register their cars there, and register to vote there. It's still their homesteaded property and they are responsible for the water bill.
We asked Tom Lightsey about this just before the recent Armwood/Plant football game.
"You know I have properties in Orange County, Hillsborough County, Pinellas County."
On several occasions, the I-Team witnessed Lightsey leaving his apartment near Armwood and going to school. And we sometimes found his parents Tom and Shelly over 30-miles away at another home they own in Indian Rocks Beach. It's there they tend to their waterfront home and take turns bringing their teenage daughter to Largo High School.
"Is that apartment where you and your wife live?” We asked Tom Lightsey. “Yes," he responded.
According to Sonny Hester, if the Lightsey's enrolled their son at Armwood listing the Seffner apartment as the family’s legal residence, it would violate FHSAA rules that prohibit false information to gain eligibility.
"What are the consequences for that?" We asked Hester. "Ineligibility for an entire year," he told us.
Hester said two state rules are in question: whether there was a full and complete move or falsification of information. Either way, he said, "Any school they attended would have to forfeit any games that student participated in."
For Armwood, undefeated, and driving towards a state championship, it would be devastating.
"We are not going to sweep it under the rug," Robinson said during an interview. He went on to say "We are addressing issues brought to our attention. Yes. We are addressing them and that's an internal matter."
During our investigation we learned Armwood High School has asked the state to make a ruling on Lightsey's eligibility. In doing so the FHSAA could possibly reduce the potential $2,500 a game fine for Armwood but not the potential forfeits.
The process of investigating this, we're told, could take months and involve a look at the entire program.
Editor's note: This story was originally published with Sonny Hester's name spelled Sunny. This error was fixed after the story was published. - Blake Sabatinelli, Executive Producer, abcactionnews.com
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