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Crown Point alum, St. Francis runner Zachary Hoover hopes NAIA overturns disqualification
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Crown Point alum, St. Francis runner Zachary Hoover hopes NAIA overturns disqualification

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Zachary Hoover -- Crown Point/St. Francis

Former Crown Point runner Zachary Hoover, who now competes at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, hopes to have his eligibility restored for his final cross country season. 

It can't end like this.

Not after countless miles of running. Not after years of dedication. Not after following the instructions of a trusted academic advisor.

Those are the thoughts that have been racing through Zachary Hoover's head for the last several months.

The 2017 Crown Point graduate took a three-credit-hour course during the fall of 2019, which was the first semester of his junior year at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. The class was called "Design, Ops., Management of Resources," and at the time he thought it ensured his eligibility to compete for the Saints.

Now, that same course Hoover received an A in has put his last cross country season in jeopardy and led to disqualification by the NAIA.

"I just sat in the car and cried," said Hoover, who is majoring in sports management. "It felt like I was in a terrible nightmare or something, and that nightmare just continued."

The issue with Hoover's class schedule, which was self-reported by St. Francis, is that he had already technically taken "Design, Ops., Management of Resources" in the spring of 2018. Although it was under a different name — "Design, Ops., Management of Comm. Rec/Park" and Hoover said he completed different assignments — the course was deemed a duplicate class by St. Francis, meaning that he couldn't receive credit for it twice.

Without credit for that course, Hoover's status as a full-time student with 12 credit hours for the fall of 2019 was retroactively changed to being a part-time student with nine credit hours. Part-time students are not allowed to compete in the NAIA, so the Saints had to forfeit every competition Hoover participated in during the 2019 cross country season since he was ineligible.

Hoover was St. Francis' No. 3 runner and finished seventh overall at the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships. He was also the Saints' No. 2 finisher at the NAIA National Championships and placed 68th overall.

Aside from penalties levied against St. Francis, the NAIA has also disciplined Hoover individually by forcing him to forfeit his next season of cross country, which would effectively shut the door on his cross country career. Hoover said St. Francis appealed the decision alongside him twice, but it was to no avail.

"When I had the meeting with my AD and my coach, I was originally excited because I thought this whole thing would be over," Hoover said. "I just thought, 'There's no way they're going to give me the harshest punishment.' But then hearing it, it was just heartbreaking."

The Crown Point native, who started his cross country career in sixth grade at Taft Middle School, said he simply followed the advice of his academic advisor, Jessica Monu. In addition to setting up Hoover's class schedule, Monu actually taught the two courses that eventually caused his academic violation.

"When I asked her about it, she basically — in a kind way — blamed me," said Hoover, who has been a mainstay on the dean's list throughout his time at St. Francis. "That was just about it. She never said anything else about it."

Monu did not respond to The Times' request for comment.

Hoover admits that there was a bit of overlap between the two courses, but he expected that since they were both classes in his major. He also added that the books and course numbers for the classes were different.

It wasn't until December 2019 that Hoover found out about the scheduling issue. Saints men's cross country coach Jeff Barker called to notify him of the mistake, which was brought to Barker's attention by assistant men's cross country coach Jeff Chiapello, who is the director of academic advising at St. Francis. But since the fall semester was already over and Hoover had completed the class, it was too late.

He ultimately took an online religion course from Campbellsville University over winter break to correct the error, ensuring that he would be eligible for track this past spring, but cross country is still up in the air.

In an effort to have the NAIA overturn its decision to disqualify him for the 2020 cross country season, Hoover and his family have turned to Miami-based sports attorney Jason Setchen for help.

"It's certainly understandable that they want to protect other institutions from any kind of academic fraud that might exist to try to make somebody eligible," said Setchen, who was hired in April. "But in Zach's case, it's clearly not academic fraud. It's simply an error that was made at the institutional level. So, why is he being punished and having his senior season taken away from him due to the mistakes that were made by people that were put in the position to avoid making those mistakes and people that student-athletes like Zach are supposed to rely upon for direction?"

Throughout his career, Setchen has mainly represented professional and NCAA athletes. But after hearing "the facts of the case," he chose to assist Hoover because he believes the NAIA's ruling is "egregious." 

Ideally, Setchen would like to see the NAIA reinstate Hoover using its own discretion. However, if that doesn't happen, Setchen is willing to take legal action on behalf of his client.

"I don't really want to focus on court remedies at this point in time," Setchen said. "But certainly we're not ruling out the possibility of pursuing legal remedies if the point comes where we have no other alternative."

Former Crown Point boys cross country and boys track coach Keith Iddings said there was "not a chance" Hoover would knowingly compete as an ineligible athlete. During Hoover's prep career, Iddings added that the Bulldogs' former team captain set a great example for his peers by holding himself to a high standard in the classroom and in competition.

"He took so many college courses when he was in high school and had over 20 credits before he even started college, so he was working closely with his advisors to make sure that he actually didn't graduate early because he wanted to run all four years of college," Iddings said. "He wanted to get that experience, so he was doing exactly what his advisors told him to do."

According to Iddings, Hoover logged over 800 miles during his senior cross country season in 2016, which was the most on the team that year.

Hoover's commitment hasn't wavered since he crossed state lines for college. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been running about 80 to 90 miles per week in preparation for what he hopes will be one last cross county season with the Saints.

Regardless of his dispute with the NAIA, Hoover will still be eligible to compete during his senior track season in the spring, yet being reinstated for the fall would give him the opportunity to end his cross country career on a high note. The 21-year-old has his eyes set on becoming an All-American, while also leading his program back to the NAIA National Championships and building on its forfeited 10th-place finish from last year.

"Running is my life," said Hoover, who received the NAIA Champions of Character Award in March. "It's my passion, and I revolve my life around it.

"It means everything to me."

St. Francis athletic director Dave Laketa declined to comment on Hoover's situation with the NAIA.

"Unfortunately, due to the ongoing ligation and the privacy regulations of our university, we would not be able to comment at this time," Lateka said.

Brenda White, the NAIA director of legislative services, also declined to comment.

“We will not be able to comment further on the Zach Hoover case,” White wrote in an email to The Times. “Information surrounding potential violation cases and outcomes are between the NAIA national office, the governing committees and the member institution.”

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Lake County Sports Reporter

James Boyd is the Lake County prep sports reporter for The Times. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a proud native of Romeoville, Illinois. Before anything else, his main goal in life is to spread love and light.

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