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Threats leave Newport Harbor program in limbo
NEWPORT BEACH - The threats that prompted Newport Harbor High School's basketball coach to resign and the school to suspend the program have sparked concerns about athletes and their parents losing sight of the sport and taking competitiveness to the extreme.
Many are supporting, even applauding, Principal Michael Vossen's decision to temporarily suspend the high school's boys basketball program after head coach Larry Hirst received three criminal threats that some speculate were the result of dissatisfaction with his coaching style or anger with the team's losing record.
Vossen did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Hirst refrained from comment, too.
"Because it is a police investigation, an on-going police investigation, I am not allowed to say anything at this time," Hirst said.
Hirst coached the Sailors for 16 years. But it was wasn't until recent seasons the program seemed to plummet, with a 10-game losing streak in January, followed by Hirst's unexplained leave as head coach.
At that time, it was unclear whether he would return.
Hirst announced on March 7 he would again lead the team. Five days later, he reported the threats found at his Huntington Beach home.
Huntington Beach police, who are investigating the incident, said they could not release information about what kind of threats Hirst received, but some have said a note was left on his wife's car and another left on their lawn. One of the notes was rumored to have read, "Leave, die or go away."
Hirst resigned from his post on March 23. Vossen announced the next day the program would be put on hold.
"I think it's pretty sad when we have this situation occurring in high school sports," said Newport-Mesa Trustee Katrina Foley. "It's unfortunate that people have taken a passion for their sport to such an extreme."
Newport Harbor was 6-17 overall in the 2011-12 season. The Sailors finished in fifth place in the six-school Sunset League with a 2-8 league record. They finished in last place in the Sunset League the previous season.
His teams have had success, though. There have been playoff teams and league champion teams, like the 2001-02 Newport team that earned the school a boys basketball league championship for the first time in 14 years.
Hirst is not one of the more vocal coaches in Orange County basketball. His questioning of officials' calls is not loud or demonstrative, and his during-game interactions with Newport Harbor players are subdued.
Jim Cantwell's son, Sean, played in the Newport Harbor program before graduating in 2009. Sean did not play varsity basketball under Hirst, who had taken a break that season to free up time for his family. But Jim Cantwell developed a favorable impression.
"Larry was a consummate pro," he said. "He delivered some great presentations about the basketball program before the boys and the parents. I was sorry Larry was not the coach when Sean was a senior."
Edison boys basketball coach Rich Boyce said Hirst is widely respected by his coaching peers.
"I'm sure I'm one of at least 50 coaches who will tell Larry, 'Please come join our coaching staff at our school,'" Boyce said. "I can't say enough good things about Larry."
Boyce is not shocked by the allegations.
"High school athletics have been getting out of control for some time," Boyce said. "We want to win at Edison, just like they want to win at Newport Harbor or Fountain Valley or anyplace else. But it's just a game, and too many people are losing sight of that."
Lt. Mitch O'Brien of the Huntington Beach Police Department said they are still investigating the threats, and would not comment on their nature. Some of the players on the team were interviewed as part of the police investigation, but police said they have no suspects.
Newport Harbor freshman Jacob Noblett said he thinks the incident was sparked by an upset parent.
"I don't think (Hirst) deserved that," Noblett said. "It was too far. People would have to be crazy to do something like that."
Sophomore Brittany Wells said she thought it was a student possibly playing a distasteful prank on the coach.
"I think it's too immature to be from a parent," she said. "I feel like a parent would just confront the coach."
Such extreme behavior is not uncommon when it comes to youth sports, said Mission Viejo sports psychologist Casey Cooper.
"Sports in Orange County have become something that is being professionalized at a younger and younger age," Cooper said. "It's about people trying to carve a way for their child that's going to help them launch into college and launch into some kind of career."
While many parents are well-intentioned, they can get caught up in grooming their children to be athletes, creating a hyper-competitive atmosphere, she said.
"It's not uncommon once a month to see a parent who's been arrested at a sporting event," she said. "They lose their rational side; their ability to see what's OK and what's not ... it's quite disturbing."
The problem, she said, is separating the child from the sport.
"You're not just raising an athlete who happens to be a child; you're raising a child who happens to participate in athletics."
Foley said she expects the basketball program will be up and running once the police have concluded their investigation.
"As I understand it, they haven't quite started spring basketball yet so this it's a natural place to take a break," she said. "I support Principal Vossen's approach. I think it's important to take a breather."
If Newport Harbor does not reinstate its boys basketball program, there could be an exodus of Newport Harbor players to neighboring schools.
Thom Simmons, spokesman for the CIF-Southern Section, the governing body of high school sports in Orange County and much of Southern California, said it would be likely that basketball student-athletes who transferred from Newport Harbor to other schools would be declared athletically eligible at those new schools without having to make the change of address required when a student-athlete transfers during or after his or her sophomore year.
Simmons referred to the recent case of Montclair Prep of Van Nuys, which shut down all of its athletic programs over budgetary concerns. When student-athletes transferred elsewhere they were granted hardship waivers that gave them athletic eligibility at their new schools.
"Ninety percent of the time when transfers occur because the school disbanded a program, the hardship waivers are approved," Simmons said. "A component of the high school experience has been eliminated, so that is why the hardships probably would be approved."
Ryan Schachter, boys baskeball coach of Newport Harbor neighborhood rival Corona del Mar, said he does not expect a wave of Newport Harbor players to Corona del Mar.
"That's because I don't see Newport Harbor not reinstating the program," Schachter said. "I think they'll bring it back, because there's no way the can not have basketball there for a full school year."
If Newport Harbor boys basketball does return, Schachter hopes Larry Hirst returns, too.
Schachter said, "Larry's too good of a guy to have this happen to him."
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