Valdosta’s appeal unanimously denied by GHSA

Rush Propst won two state titles as Colquitt County football coach.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Rush Propst won two state titles as Colquitt County football coach.

THOMASTON — The four-member Georgia High School Association appeals board unanimously rejected Valdosta High School’s appeal of the penalties that declared five players ineligible and banned the football team from participating in the 2021 playoffs.

The school did not appeal the decision before the 66-member GSHSA executive committee on Monday afternoon. It is expected to use its final appeal to the 13-person board of trustees in a special called meeting.

The GHSA fined the school $7,500 and charged Valdosta coach Rush Propst and the school’s booster club with illegal recruiting and lack of institutional control. The four players, who transferred to Valdosta prior to their junior year, are ineligible to participate in sports for the 2021-22 season at any GHSA school, barring a successful appeal.

The committee was not swayed by the two hours of sworn testimony by the parents of the four students, who said they had not received any compensation or inducement to transfer by Propst. Valdosta School superintendent Todd Cason, principal Janice Richardson and athletics director Reginald Mitchell each testified they had taken the proper steps during the process to ensure institutional control.

An emotional Mitchell said, “I’m a product of this program and I’m proud of this program. I take it personally” when they say there was a lack of institutional control.

GHSA attorney Alan Cottrell read the bylaw that states the high schools are responsible for infractions caused by their fan or booster club.

Propst did not attend the meeting on advice of legal counsel. He is currently on administrative leave. He is under contract, but it could be terminated by the board.

The five players ruled ineligible were quarterbacks Jake Garcia and Amari Jones, wide receiver Tahj Sanders, running back Jamad Willis and linebacker Ty’Li Lewis.

Garcia moved to Valdosta with his parents from California. He was declared ineligible after one game and transferred to Grayson, where he led the Rams to the Class 7A championship. He graduated early and has enrolled the University of Miami. His family was not represented at the appeal.

Jones, who finished the season as Valdosta’s starting quarterback, transferred from Carver-Atlanta. Sanders, Willis and Lewis had played for Propst at Colquitt County, where he coached from 2008-17 and won two state championships (2014 and 2015) and the 2015 national championship.

The appeals hearing began with the GHSA playing taped recordings of a conversation with Propst and then-Valdosta Touchdown Club president Michael “Nub” Nelson in which the coach spoke of recruiting athletes and needing a “funny money” account to pay for housing and utility costs. The GSHA also introduced a sworn affidavit from Nelson that affirms what was caught on the tape.

Brian Smith, the attorney representing Valdosta, called five parents to testify, Each had their own reason for moving to the school, but refuted the idea of any inducements and all presented evidence that they had paid their own rent.

Robin Smith, the mother of Amari Jones, said her move from Atlanta, where her son was enrolled in Carver High School, was predicated on safety. She said the area in which she lived was prone to gun violence, home invasions and breakins. She has family members who live in Valdosta and decided it was a better environment.

“This was not about football,” she said. “My motivation was to save my son.”

Tim Sanders, father of Tahj Sanders, said they moved from Collquitt County to Valdosta to put their son in a better learning environment.

“We wanted to change the academics. I didn’t see him making it out of Moultrie,” Sanders said. “It was bigger than football for me,”

The recordings that the GHSA used as evidence had Propst boasting that three of the players were coming. Another was mentioned in the sworn statement. Smith dismissed the recording as “bar talk.”

Valdosta is the state’s winningest program with 939 victories. The Wildcats have won a state-record 24 championships. They were 7-5 during Propst’s first season as head coach.