High school football program under scrutiny after facing 2 foes in 3 days, duping ESPN

CHRIS HARLAN
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
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Sto-Rox and Bishop Sycamore both wore black uniforms for their football game Friday at the Wolvarena, but the matching outfits weren't the most unusual part of the weekend for the online school from Columbus, Ohio.

Less than 48 hours after losing to Sto-Rox in the Western Pa. vs. Everyone Showcase, Bishop Sycamore played again Sunday in Canton, Ohio, on national TV against IMG Academy.

That wasn't a surprise, said Sto-Rox coach LaRoi Johnson, who knew in advance about the Sunday game on ESPN. But he and organizers of the Woodland Hills event were under the impression Bishop Sycamore had two separate teams, one for high school varsity athletes and another with a prep-school roster suited for a national schedule.

Varsity would play Friday and the prep school would play Sunday.

Yet, on Sunday, much of Bishop Sycamore's starting lineup was the same as what the team used Friday against Sto-Rox. Offensively, almost all of the 11 starters appeared to play in both games, including quarterback Trilian Harris.

After seeing Sunday's game, "my kids kept saying, 'I don't know how their bodies can hold up,'" LaRoi Johnson said.

Harris was replaced at halftime against Sto-Rox but others played the whole game. Bishop Sycamore lost 19-7 to Sto-Rox and 58-0 to IMG Academy, a sports-focused private school in Brandenton, Fla.

Was ESPN duped? During the lopsided loss to IMG Academy, ESPN's own broadcasters seemed to question whether Bishop Sycamore had exaggerated the program's stature and talent level. On social media, the question was whether the team had duped ESPN into a national TV spot?

On Monday, ESPN released a statement to multiple media outlets saying: "We regret that this happened and have discussed it with Paragon ( Marketing Group), which secured the matchup and handles the majority of our high school event scheduling. They have ensured us that they will take steps to prevent this kind of situation from happening moving forward."

Bishop Sycamore coach Roy Johnson, asked Friday at the Wolvarena about the IMG game, confirmed his program had two teams.

"Yeah, we have the national team that will play on Sunday," he said.

Asked if there were any overlap between the lineups, he said: "sometimes."

"Those are the guys you see come in on the first series," he said. "They'll be throwing the ball around and then we pull them out and let the other guys get some film because they need it."

Roy Johnson previously coached Christians of Faith, another startup football program in Columbus, Ohio, that played North Allegheny in 2018. He admitted both Sto-Rox and Bishop Sycamore wore black uniforms Friday because his team forgot to pack their white set.

Bishop Sycamore's background: High School Football America described Bishop Sycamore as "an online charter school helping at-risk youth" in a podcast interview with Centurions coach Roy Johnson from a few weeks ago.

Bishop Sycamore isn't a member of the Ohio High School Athletic Association but rather the Texas Christian Athletic League.

After the lopsided loss to IMG, the team started drawing national scrutiny. A report by the website FootballScoop.com first noted that the school's website, BishopSycamore.org "is basically a blog; its most recent post, on May 21, explains how to catch a college recruiter's attention on social media. The website's About Us section is blank."

A gofundme account seeking to raise funding for the team's travel and equipment was shut down Monday after raising $140. The team's MaxPreps schedule lists upcoming trips to Kentucky, Texas, Nevada, Maryland and Virginia.

Former York High AD talks about the team: The team was in Western Pennsylvania because Roy Johnson had asked to participate in Friday's showcase, said former Woodland Hills athletic director Ron Coursey, who organized the multi-game event. Coursey, the former York High athletic director is now the AD at Chambersburg.

Coursey said the coach reached out in the spring.

"He expressed to me that he had a bunch of high-level D1 kids but he also articulated that he had two teams," Coursey said. "He said that he had a high school team and a prep team. I told him, 'Hey, the prep team may not meet the criteria as far as playing PIAA-certified schools. You'll have to send your high school team.'

"He said that's not a problem."

PIAA contract was signed: Woodland Hills made Bishop Sycamore sign a PIAA game contract, a requirement for out-of-state opponents to play PIAA members. That contract directs teams to abide by PIAA rules, including those that prohibit the use of fifth-year players or those over the age limit.

Coursey looked into Bishop Sycamore's history and saw online schedules said they'd played some respected Ohio powers last fall, including Massillon, St. Edwards and St. Ignatius.

"I said, 'All right, they must be a legit squad,'" Coursey said. "But I also noticed they did not fare very well in their contests."

Coming off a winless season: Bishop Sycamore went 0-6 in 2020. So, Coursey decided to schedule them against a small-school WPIAL team. Sto-Rox was the 2020 WPIAL runner-up in Class 2-A.

The game was competitive. Tied 7-7 at half, Sto-Rox scored two second-half touchdowns to win. LaRoi Johnson, the Sto-Rox coach, said there's no doubt Bishop Sycamore had talent and he doesn't fault coach Roy Johnson for trying to showcase those players.

"I know what he was trying to do for those kids," LaRoi Johnson said. "I can definitely respect it. You can clearly see they've got some talented kids and had some nice-sized kids.

"But all of this is a lot."