Hayley Witmer is resigned to the bench at Lebanon Catholic this year after her transfer was contested by Elco, where the junior began the school year as a
Hayley Witmer is resigned to the bench at Lebanon Catholic this year after her transfer was contested by Elco, where the junior began the school year as a Raider. (Jeremy Long — Lebanon Daily News)

It's been a hot-button topic in high school athletics for decades: Student-athletes switching schools for athletic reasons, or at least being perceived to have done so.

At times it gets rather out of control, with some athletes seemingly jumping to another school and a potentially more favorable athletic experience at the drop of a hat.

Then there are other cases where students who are heavily involved in sports change schools, but not with their new school's athletic situation or possibilities serving as the primary motivator.

Hayley Witmer, as well as her family and her new school, Lebanon Catholic, believes strongly that she fits into the latter category.

Her old school, Elco High School, as well as Pennsylvania high school sports governing bodies District Three and the PIAA, believes just as strongly that she does not.

That major difference of opinion led the Elco School District to challenge Witmer's transfer to Lebanon Catholic in late October on the grounds that it was for athletic reasons, since Witmer planned to play basketball for Lebanon Catholic.

A junior, Witmer played hoops at Elco the past two seasons and was expected to be one of the Raiders' top five or six players this season. She had also competed for the school's volleyball team prior to transferring to Lebanon Catholic for what she claims were non-sports reasons.


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"I was really unhappy there," Witmer said of her reasons for leaving Elco. "I just didn't like it anymore, and my grades were not where they needed to be. And I also wanted to go to a Christian school to strengthen my faith."

After hearing rumors that Witmer, who says she also considered attending New Covenant Christian School, Lancaster Mennonite and Cocalico, was telling other students she planned to transfer to Lebanon Catholic, Elco girls' basketball coach Ashli Shay met with her to discuss the situation.

That chat was the catalyst for Elco challenging Witmer's eventual transfer, with Shay apparently believing that Witmer intended to leave Elco solely for a better basketball opportunity at Lebanon Catholic. For her part, Witmer contends she was told if she was even thinking about transferring to Lebanon Catholic she should not come out for basketball at Elco, which only added to her desire to leave the district.

At any rate, the District Three committee unanimously upheld that challenge at a hearing in November and an appeal to the PIAA board held last week also went in Elco's favor.

The rulings mean Witmer is ineligible to compete on any Lebanon Catholic sports teams for one year.

Hayley Witmer, left, suited up for Elco last winter as a sophomore but will have to wait until she’s a senior to play high school basketball again at
Hayley Witmer, left, suited up for Elco last winter as a sophomore but will have to wait until she's a senior to play high school basketball again at Lebanon Catholic. (File — Lebanon Daily News)

Elco declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying only in a statement released by athletic director Doug Bohannon that "We have the utmost respect for Lebanon Catholic and its girls' basketball program. When a student-athlete transfers to another school, it is a requirement of PIAA that both schools involved in the transfer complete the "Transfer Waiver Request" form. That process was followed in this situation, as it is with all student-athlete transfers."

Lebanon Catholic athletic director Mike Miller and girls' basketball coach Patti Hower were both disappointed and upset with the district and state rulings, feeling Witmer was treated unfairly and that Bohannon and Elco contested her transfer because they had seen a few notable student-athletes transfer from Elco to other schools and thrive athletically in the last few years. That includes senior Anthony Pletz, who left Elco for Lebanon Catholic prior to the 2012-13 school year and now stars for the school's boys' basketball team.

In addition, Miller noted that numerous transfers of student-athletes over the summer months went unchallenged by the schools they were leaving, and as a result District Three and the PIAA could not act on them.

"I think (Bohannon) had a personal agenda to use her as an example," Hower said. "All these other kids, there's no questions asked.

"I never felt it was (about) Hayley. I thought it was the situation."

"I think it's unfair," Miller said. "When you look at District Three, in July, August and September there were over 100 transfers that passed without having to go to any hearing whatsoever. And then there's the handful of a few unlucky kids like Hayley that have to go through it. I think that's unfair.

"The excuse that we get is, 'Well, the principals signed off (on the transfer).' If one kid has to go through this for a transfer, knowing what she went through, then they all should have to go through this. That's what I feel is unjust about the situation."

It should be noted that prior to the writing of this story Bohannon, who is the vice-chairman of the District Three committee, and Shay both declined the opportunity to comment or respond on the record to any claims Lebanon Catholic or Witmer would make concerning Elco's reasons for challenging the transfer.

In its challenge, Elco noted four separate factors that it believed were contributing factors on the Transfer Waiver Request Form mentioned above.

First, it believed that one of the reasons that Witmer wanted to transfer to Lebanon Catholic was to play for Becky Kleinfelter, an assistant to Hower (who is her mother) who had given Witmer private basketball lessons in the past.

According to appeal hearing documents provided by Lebanon Catholic, Elco, specifically Shay, later backed off that assertion.

But Elco also claimed that Witmer and her parents were motivated by a desire to achieve more notoriety by playing for a small-school program. Without Witmer, Lebanon Catholic has just six players on its roster this season.

In addition, Elco noted that Witmer transferred in the middle of a marking period, which it deemed suspicious, and that neither Witmer nor her parents had ever complained that Elco was providing an unsuitable academic environment. The school pointed out that Witmer was well-regarded by teachers and ranked 18th out of 171 students in her class.

Lebanon Catholic, which was represented in the hearings by local attorney Loren Schrum, disputed each of Elco's claims, but the district and state committees were unmoved. Miller noted with frustration that the state committee deliberated just 10 minutes in denying Lebanon Catholic's appeal.

Witmer, who wants to pursue a physical therapy career and does not have any collegiate basketball aspirations, remains steadfast in her decision to come to Lebanon Catholic and the reasons behind it and has no plans to return to Elco.

"I'm proud of myself, because this whole thing is me standing up for what I believe," she said. "I would not change my decision for anything.

"I love it here. The whole atmosphere is different. I feel so much more welcome. There's a lot of support from the teachers and the other students."

The most difficult part for Witmer, other than the social media spats that have developed with former classmates who are questioning her motives, has been the absence of basketball from her school experience. She is permitted to practice with the team, but, of course, cannot play in games until next season.

"It's extremely hard," said Witmer, whose sister Emily, a freshman, remains a student at Elco. "When the games come, it kills me. You can't do anything. It's an awful feeling. I think that might be the hardest part, not being able to help my team.

"No one wins in this situation," Hower said. "And Hayley's losing, that's the bottom line. Elco's not gaining anything from it. She's not going back."