Newport Harbor reinstates basketball

Boys' basketball is back at Newport Harbor High.

Principal Michael Vossen said the school has reinstated the program, three weeks after he suspended it because of criminal threats made against then-coach Larry Hirst and his wife.

The question facing Vossen and the Sailors is what kind of an impact has a turbulent past four months had on the program.

"We want to take the program into a positive place right now," Vossen said. "The first step in doing that is hiring a new coach.

The Sailors are looking for someone to take over a program, which has gone through a lot since the New Year, by Memorial Day weekend.

The Sailors have been without a coach since March 23, when Hirst resigned for good after 16 years in charge. The threats directed toward Hirst and his wife, Sheridan, are the reason why Hirst left.

Vossen said the Huntington Beach and Newport Beach police departments are each investigating the threats made at the Hirst home in Huntington Beach and on the Newport Harbor campus, where Hirst and Sheridan both teach. Vossen said he couldn't comment on the ongoing investigations, but added, "A small pocket of individuals are not necessarily responsible for the larger program, but unfortunately it only takes a few individuals or an individual to cause problems."

Parents of players on last season's team have been outraged about the way the school has handled the accusations.

Rob Rettig, Mark Okey and Rufus Wade each said their sons, who played last season for Hirst, have been falsely accused of making the threats. Rettig said a campus police officer last month pulled out his son and five other players from class and questioned them about threats made at the Hirst home on March 12.

"You know why you're here," Rettig said the officer told the six players. "They said, 'No.' The officer got upset, saying, 'Of course you know why you're here.' They saw copies of the notes left at Hirst's home and the officer put them in front of them."

Okey, the booster club president, and Wade each said they felt the school expected their kids to be involved.

Okey and Rettig said they, along with other parents, spoke out during a meeting on campus on March 7, when Vossen reintroduced Hirst as the coach. Hirst had stepped down in January for personal reasons, the third time in four years he had taken a leave of absence from the program.

"We were in the meeting and we thought we were allowed to vent and express our concerns with the program, and it really backfired on us," said Wade, who found it hard to believe that Hirst was allowed to come back because of the team's lack of success the past four seasons.

The Sailors missed the CIF Southern Section playoffs for the third time in the past four seasons, a stretch in which the Sailors went 6-34 in Sunset League play. None of those teams had an overall winning record.

"You don't go and accuse kids. Of course you investigate," Wade said. "It's been blown up. What came out of it? There's no factual evidence. We were just concerned about the basketball program and how it needed some improvement."

Wade said he and his son, Zach, haven't talked about the reinstatement of the program because the ordeal has left some distaste in their mouths.

Wade said his son is focusing on football during the spring and he hopes to be the starting quarterback at Newport Harbor as a senior next fall.

"There are a lot of good people at Harbor. Coach [Jeff] Brinkley is a great [football] coach and teacher," Wade said. "It's just not about football, he turns boys into men."

Rettig was hoping for his son, Robbie, to mature by playing basketball in his first season on varsity, the same way dad did when he was in high school in the state of Washington.

Rettig said the experience has devastated his son, a junior, who is now a member of the boys' volleyball team.

"I know my son talked to my wife and he's unsure if he wants to play basketball," Rettig said. "At this point, he might not play any sports anymore."

Okey said his son plans to play basketball next season for the Sailors.

He's happy and relieved the program is moving forward. The only issue he has is with the handling of the accusations.

"I still think how the administration handled the investigation is kind of criminal," Okey said. "They used every opportunity to implicate the players and the parents as criminals without any evidence whatsoever. There has not been a shred of evidence.

"I know that no basketball players were involved. These are 16- and 17-year-olds. They can't keep a secret for a month. It would've come out by now."

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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