Saturday's Class 2A state final basketball game in which Harrisburg defeated Seton Academy 50-44 at Peoria was so hostile the Illinois High School Association threatened to cancel it at halftime, and days later hard feelings continued to fester.
Seton assistant coach Art Kimber and some parents from the South Holland school claim that at least one Harrisburg player used racial slurs on the court. Harrisburg administrators deny that and say they are being portrayed unfairly as racists.
Meanwhile, multiple sources said Seton head coach Brandon Thomas, who has been roundly criticized as a poor sport for leading his team off the floor before it could receive the second-place trophy, has been placed on leave as administrators investigate the circumstances around the game.
The IHSA is conducting its own review, keeping an unwelcome spotlight on two schools whose otherwise stellar seasons ended in turbulence.
"I believe that people who don't know the whole story have made their opinions about our team, our players and the coaches," said Kori Clemons, the mother of Seton junior guard Jaylin Clemons. "I believe it's important that the whole story comes out -- that this was bigger than a basketball game and our trophy."
Kimber and the parents of several Seton players met Monday night to draft a petition in support of Thomas. Kimber said at the meeting that Seton faced racist language almost from the opening tipoff.
"It started in the beginning of the game with racial words, like 'Get off me, (N-word),"' Kimber said. "It happened so many times that I wasn't keeping track anymore. ... It got so bad that every single time that they tried to complain to the referees, they were told, 'Do not talk to me or I will give you a technical.'"
Seton senior Mark Weems Jr., the team's leading scorer, was thrown out of the game with 2 minutes, 5 seconds left in the second quarter. He was called for a technical foul for complaining to a referee and subsequently was tossed automatically when he got a second technical for making contact with an official.
Seton had an eight-point lead when Weems was thrown out. He was not allowed to return to Seton's bench for the remainder of the game.
A Harrisburg player also received a technical foul in the first half, and Harrisburg coach Randy Smithpeters was warned for leaving the area in front of the bench to argue a call. The behavior prompted IHSA executive director Marty Hickman to call the coaches and athletic directors from both schools into a halftime meeting.
"(We) expressed our concerns to the schools about what had occurred in the first half, including three technical fouls, a player ejection and a bench warning," Hickman said Tuesday in a statement to the Tribune. "At that time, Seton Academy also expressed concerns over the use of racial slurs. The onus was put on the coaches to provide the necessary leadership to change the tenor of the game. We also made it very clear that if things did not change, we would take the unprecedented step of canceling the game."
But Kimber said the abuse continued in the second half.
"It was the officials' job to gain and maintain control of the game and to make sure there was a sportsmanlike environment to play," he said. "They failed to do that."
Game officials Todd Brooke and Richard Tolle declined comment, while efforts to reach the third referee, Daniel Smith, were unsuccessful. Hickman, though, defended the officials in his statement.
"To indicate that the referees ignored or failed to act in any way would be entirely inaccurate," he said. "The objective of our investigation is to now determine and verify exactly what occurred on the court during the course of the game."
Smithpeters declined to comment, but Dennis Smith, superintendent of the Harrisburg Community School District, said he knew of only one allegation of a Harrisburg player using a racial slur. The player denied it and black teammates backed him up, Smith said.
"Our team is tight, and our African-American kids would not go out on the floor with fellow players who are of that type," Dennis Smith said. "They're trying to paint us as southern Illinois racists, and that is ludicrous."
The Harrisburg player accused of uttering the slur is a minor, and the Tribune is not naming him. He is away on a long-planned vacation this week, according to Jay Thompson, Harrisburg's athletic director. The district's spring break begins March 28.
Seton's allegations mark the second time in a month that Harrisburg has faced an accusation of racism. Former student Roman Moore, who is black, last month filed a federal lawsuit in which he claimed classmates placed a noose bearing his name in a locker room and subjected him to other racist acts. Dennis Smith declined comment on the lawsuit, saying the district has not been served with the complaint.
As the IHSA investigation into the game continues, Seton administrators are conducting their own review. Thomas declined to comment but issued a statement of apology Monday.
"While my actions have given the appearance of poor sportsmanship, it was not my intent," he said. "I am truly saddened that this situation occurred and that it has diminished the hard work and effort put forth by our young men and that of the school administrators and coaches who supported us throughout the season."
Some Seton parents said Thomas' decision to leave the floor -- which came after he got into a heated exchange with some spectators -- should not threaten his position at the school. About two dozen have signed the petition supporting him.
"I would hate to see something happen to Coach Thomas as far as his job is considered," said Toni Dunn-Seaton, mother of junior Christopher Seaton. "That would be a total injustice, taking his job for insuring the safety of the players."
Neither side is happy with the public perception surrounding the game. Dennis Smith said Harrisburg's dream season has been tainted with unfair allegations, while Hope Foster -- mother of Seton senior Alex Foster, a University of Minnesota recruit -- said the Seton players are being reviled as thugs and whiners.
"They don't want to be thought of as babies because they didn't win," she said. "It's not about that. It's about the way they were treated.
"It really hurt my son. He worked really hard to get to state. It wasn't a very good experience for him."