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New Mexico bans exchange students from varsity sports

New Mexico Activities Association

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End of an Era

Written by Jason W. Brooks/News-Bulletin

Wednesday, 20 July 2011 07:00

  When the opening whistle blows at the start of the first 2011-12 varsity soccer match in New Mexico, there won’t be any foreign-exchange students on the field. 

  In fact, there won’t be exchange students on a cross country course, tennis court, swim venue or any other varsity competition, beginning with the 2011-12 school year. 

The New Mexico Activities Association implemented a bylaw change that takes away the one school year’s worth of varsity athletics for each exchange student. Now, each exchange student gets one year of sub-varsity eligibility. If the student returns, for some reason, to New Mexico for a second year, there’s no athletic eligibility at all.

“A lot of this discussion comes up whenever an exchange student wins a state championship, and a New Mexico kid is the runner-up,” said Sally Marquez, one of the NMAA’s associate directors.

“Those were the times we really heard the rumbling. It was primarily an issue in individual sports, but we’ve also seen how an exchange student could turn a contest in team sports.”

The change will affect some programs more than others, and since exchange students end up somewhat randomly at schools and in varying numbers, no program could count on their contributions from one year to the next. However, some of these athletes made strong contributions, and affected their sport’s landscape in their year in New Mexico.

The change initiated with the NMAA bylaws committee, which Marquez described as an anonymous group of about 20 coaches, athletic directors and others. Marquez then brought the committee’s recommendation to last September’s NMAA Commission meeting, where it passed.

After the proposal was also passed by the board of directors, it went to a statewide referendum in November. There, it passed by an 80-39 margin, and became a bylaw.

“Since we have about 150 schools, to get 119 to vote on something is pretty good turnout,” said Marquez.

Before Taylar Jaramillo of Rio Communities won a 2011 state girls golf title, the previous Belen High state champion in golf was an exchange student. Louise Hagstrand of Forshaga, Sweden, won the 1998 title in Class 4A by five strokes over the runner-up.

Other Valencia County programs have seen periodic success by exchange students. Matthias Holler of Germany qualified for the Class 5A state golf tournament in 2007-08.

Even in 2010-11, there were contributors in the county. Leo Bettini of Venezuela, Denis Huber of Germany and Simona Mlezivová of the Czech Republic competed on the Belen tennis team, with Bettini teaming with Taylor Williams to place fourth in the 4A state doubles tournament.

Huber and Bettini were joined by Michael Kachelmyer of Romania on last year’s Belen High boys soccer team that reached the 4A state championship match.

Valencia High has had track and field athlete Lisa Bakke, soccer player June Saether, swimmer Aek NaNa and an all-district golfer in Karolina Plars from Sweden.

“We don’t have exchange students in our sport every year, but this year, Leo really came on late in the year,” said Regina Elkins, Belen tennis coach for more than 30 years. “You can’t predict who you’ll get. I didn’t think it would pass.”

Marquez said the move doesn’t target public or private schools, and isn’t a geographic issue.

“We have exchange students all over the state,” she said.

She said the only exception for eligibility would be if a student established permanent residency in New Mexico. The NMAA has a written procedure for students moving in from a foreign country, one that involves a 365-calendar-day waiting period to become eligible.

This is similar to the new transfer rule between New Mexico schools, which became effective last spring, and also involves a 365-day waiting period.

However, exchange students will now be regulated to sub-varsity teams. In some cases, a humble, patient student-athlete might prove to be a valuable scout-team member and positive role model, but there is still an adjustment for everyone involved.

Belen boys soccer coach Brian Weems said he doesn’t feel it’s fair to not expose a student to the top team each school has to offer.

“I disagree with the rule change, because it is not fair for students who come from another country to not get the full experience of a high school’s highest level of athletics,” said Weems. “No matter the skill level of the foreign-exchange student, all teams in New Mexico can benefit from having a different perspective on how the sport is taught, learned, and played in their culture.” 

Barbara Rodriguez of Belen High, who had the lone BHS vote in the November referendum, said she voted against it. Wilson Holland, athletic director for Los Lunas Schools, has the Los Lunas High and Valencia High vote on each referendum, but couldn’t immediately recall if he had voted for or against the proposal.


Contact Jason W. Brooks

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Megan Conn, Iceland, 1997

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“After my experience with AFS in Iceland, I went on to major in anthropology at CSU, Chico.  This major led to an interest in archaeology.  I worked as an archaeologist and park ranger for several years before entering the museum world.”

Megan Conn, AFS Iceland, 1997-98