The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association sent two investigators to meet with Signal Mountain administrators and football coaches Thursday to inquire as to the athletic eligibility of a student.
According to TSSAA officials, the player in question is 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior fullback/linebacker Tim McClendon, who transferred from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe during the summer and started for Signal Mountain in all seven games this season.
TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said that while the player's residency changed from Georgia to Tennessee, he had not moved into Signal Mountain's zone, making him ineligible to participate in athletics at the school.
"We did have two TSSAA officials on our campus to investigate one of our student-athletes," Signal Mountain Principal Dr. Tom McCullough said Thursday. "That player will have to be withheld from competing until there is a ruling, and that likely won't happen in time for him to play in tomorrow night's game.
"We're looking into the matter ourselves and cooperating with the TSSAA on the matter. It's ongoing."
LFO, Heritage and Ringgold all played their spring games at Heritage on May 21, and coaches from those schools said McClendon participated for LFO that day, meaning he potentially could be ineligible for one calendar year to play for any team outside the zone in which he currently lives.
Under Article III, Section 13 of the TSSAA's eligibility handbook, if it is determined that Signal Mountain played an ineligible player, the program would be forced to vacate all six victories this season. A vacated win is treated from the penalized school's standpoint as though the game was not played. Opponents still would count the losses on their records.
The Eagles went undefeated to win the Class 2A state championship last season in their second year of varsity competition. That was the fastest any program has claimed a title in state history. Because the school's enrollment jumped, the team was moved up in classification during the offseason. The Eagles have district games against Chattanooga Christian and Sequatchie County remaining.
Signal Mountain is 6-1 overall, 3-0 in District 7-AA and ranked No. 3 in the state in Class 4A. If the Eagles vacate their wins, their new record would be 0-1 overall and 0-0 in the district.
Under that scenario, with three regular-season games remaining, the best Signal Mountain could finish would be 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the district. If Bledsoe County and Sequatchie County each earns one more district win, those two teams would have three league victories and Signal Mountain would be relegated to a third-place finish. Only the top two finishers in each district earn automatic playoff berths, so the only way Signal Mountain could advance to the postseason would be through a wild-card invitation, which goes by overall victories.
"If they only have three overall wins, I don't see a scenario where they would qualify for a wild card to get into the playoffs," TSSAA assistant director Matthew Gillespie said. "They would be lumped in with every other team in 4A that has three wins and be treated like a team that was 3-7 overall.
"The only way they could still earn a playoff spot would be if two other teams in their district don't reach more than two league wins, and Signal Mountain could get one of the top two automatic bids."
Because the school did not turn itself in for the violation, there also could be a $100 fine per game in which McClendon participated, if he is ruled ineligible.