The Chief Sealth High School girls basketball team is a juggernaut: Reigning state champions. Undefeated this year at 22-0, annihilating opponents by scores as lopsided as 87-3. Nationally ranked by USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
How does this otherwise-undistinguished West Seattle public school do it?
It breaks the rules.
Not the girls on the floor, who are a remarkable collection of basketball talent, but their coaches, who brought them together.
A Seattle Times investigation has found that head coach Ray Willis and his assistants, Amos Walters and Laura Fuller, have recruited players for more than three years, violating numerous amateur athletic rules. Six of those players helped the Seahawks win a state championship last year, and three still play for this season's team, which is competing in district playoffs Thursday and is favored to win the state title again next month.
Parents say the Chief Sealth coaches found their daughters by scouting gyms around the region, then enticed them with talk of starting positions and college scholarships. In four cases, parents say the coaches provided bogus lease agreements and offered addresses in West Seattle so the girls could establish residency in the Seattle School District without moving from the suburbs.
Chief Sealth recruiting
A Seattle Times investigation found that head coach Ray Willis and his assistants, Amos Walters and Laura Fuller, recruited players for more than three years, violating numerous amateur athletic rules:
Coaches violated rules to build state's top team [Feb. 14, 2006]
PDF | Sealth investigation findings [April 7, 2006]
PDF | District letter regarding player eligibility [March 1, 2006]
PDF | District investigation report update [March 1, 2006]
Chief Sealth stripped of state titles [July 26, 2006]
Chief Sealth appeals to WIAA [July 25, 2006]
Ex-Sealth coaches sue to get jobs back [July 11, 2006]
Chief Sealth will appeal penalties [June 13, 2006]
Sealth's district titles yanked [June 6, 2006]
League won't make Chief Sealth girls forfeit any games [May 11, 2006]
Editorial: The public's need to oversee Chief Sealth [April 28, 2006]
Metro delays decision on Chief Sealth girls team [April 25, 2006]
Obscure panel now in thick of Sealth recruiting scandal [April 21, 2006]
Sealth coach appeals to keep his job [April 15, 2006]
Editorial: District abdicates in Sealth fiasco [April 13, 2006]
District to drop Sealth coaches [April 8, 2006]
Investigator: Parents say Sealth recruited daughters [March 31, 2006]
WIAA oversees school sports, but lacks teeth when rules are broken [March 14, 2006]
District declares Sealth player ineligible [March 2, 2006]
With coaches under a cloud, Sealth girls focus on basketball [Feb. 17, 2006]
District is investigating Sealth [Feb. 16, 2006]
Sealth students to play tonight; investigation into recruiting continues [Feb. 16, 2006]
Rebecca Rogers said Willis pulled out all the stops in his effort to get her 6-foot-2 daughter, Leah, to transfer to Chief Sealth, even though the family continued to live in Renton.
"He said he'd get her a scholarship, and all that dream-team stuff — everything a parent and child wants to hear," Rebecca Rogers recalled.
She showed Times reporters a document she said she was given by head coach Willis. It appeared to be a lease for an apartment in West Seattle but, Rogers said, it actually was a ruse to allow her daughter to enroll at Chief Sealth. Then, Rogers said, assistant coach Walters helped her daughter get a deal on a car to drive back and forth from Renton to the school.
Other parents and players said Willis and assistant coach Fuller bought prospective players meals. And the stepfather of a current star player was given a volunteer assistant-coaching position when his daughter came to the school.
All of those tactics violate rules of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), which oversees high-school sports in the state. The rules strictly forbid coaches from recruiting or attempting to recruit athletes, and the WIAA handbook lists examples of inducements that cannot be offered to prospective players or their families.
Experts say this could be one of the largest recruiting scandals in girls sports nationwide, and the first of any magnitude in Washington state.
Mike Colbrese, the WIAA's executive director, said the practices revealed by The Times should be investigated, and if they are substantiated the Metro League should reprimand the school. Penalties could include disqualifying the team from postseason play — possibly disrupting the district tournament now under way.
Recruiting, Colbrese said, "invalidates victory and defeat because the one thing we always talk about in school sports programs is creating a level playing field."
But an investigation can be launched only if a school reports its own violation or another member school writes a formal complaint. And even then, the rules say, the school investigates itself.
All three coaches deny any wrongdoing.
"I've never promised a player or a parent a scholarship or a guaranteed playing position," said Willis, who aspires to coach college basketball.
Willis and Fuller previously coached at Eastside Catholic High School in Bellevue. Willis was fired from that school, for undisclosed reasons, after two seasons.
The three coaches started at Chief Sealth in 2002 and inherited a 3-17 team. Within two years, the team made the Class 3A state tournament and last year it took the title.
Willis said he is a victim of people jealous of Chief Sealth's success, and of parents who misunderstood him and his staff.
"Parents feel like any conversation they have with a coach, they are being recruited," Willis said. "I think it's sort of an honor to some of these parents that they think one of the top teams in the state really wants their daughter."
The WIAA's Colbrese said even if parents do express interest, coaches are supposed to refer them to school administrators. Recruiting is about more than just promises of scholarships and starting spots. Coaches are not supposed to say anything to prospective players or their parents to encourage them to come to a school for athletic reasons, WIAA rules state.
Despite the coaches' adamant denials, more than a dozen people independently gave detailed accounts of how athletes were pursued, a few as early as the sixth grade.
Five parents told The Times their daughters were recruited by Chief Sealth but they decided to enroll elsewhere.
Chey Anne Tatum said Willis tried to persuade her daughter, Seanitta, to transfer from Tyee High School in SeaTac. During a dinner at the Tatum home in 2003, she said, Willis provided a blank lease and offered to provide a West Seattle address for her daughter to use to enroll at Chief Sealth.
Tatum said Willis tempted her with talk of college scholarships for Seanitta, but the mother said no.
"My daughter may have had the exposure, but then she may think that things come easy," said Tatum. "You can get in the door by being deceitful, but ethics and integrity are extremely important to me."
Finding fake homes
Rebecca Rogers remembers the January night three years ago when the Chief Sealth coaches sold her daughter a dream.
Leah was a promising sophomore basketball player and track athlete at Renton High School. Earlier that school year, Rebecca Rogers said, assistant coach Walters began promoting Chief Sealth, talking to her at Leah's games and calling her at home and work.
Willis and Walters invited Rogers and Leah to watch their team play on Jan. 29, 2003, against Rainier Beach, Rogers said.
In a dark, nearly empty parking lot after the game, she said, Willis, Fuller and Walters assured the mother and daughter that Leah would have a spot in the starting lineup if she transferred. They would get her a college basketball scholarship. They would even find her a specialized coach for her track events, discus and shot put.
The coaches followed up that conversation with phone calls and visits, Rogers said. She says they told her not to worry about her daughter's eligibility to attend a school in the Seattle School District, even though she planned to continue to live in Renton. They would get around the strict residential rules set by the WIAA.
Except in rare circumstances, a student may play athletics at a school only if the family lives in the school district or the student passes an eligibility hearing after transferring schools. Typically, students who transfer must wait a year before playing on varsity teams.
To get around those rules, Rogers says, Willis gave her a West Seattle address to use to enroll Leah at Chief Sealth in the fall of 2003. She says he even mailed her a fake lease agreement, which she used.
Willis denies arranging any leases, fake or otherwise.
But Rogers produced a copy of the agreement, which states that a man named Gregg Springer would rent to Rogers an apartment on Delridge Way Southwest in West Seattle. Springer, who lived in the complex at that address, told The Times he doesn't know Rogers and never entered into a lease agreement with her.
Springer, a Chief Sealth alumnus, said he does know Willis from pickup basketball games. He recalls Willis asking him about the apartment complex for a friend. That was the last he heard anything about it, Springer said.
Rogers said one of the coaches also provided her with a fake receipt for $700 in rent, in case she needed more proof at enrollment time.
After Rogers expressed concern over her daughter commuting by Metro bus from Renton to Seattle for classes, practices and games, assistant coach Walters got her a deal on a car — a favor to which Walters admits. Under WIAA rules, the deal is a violation because it was offered only to one ballplayer, not to all students.
Leah Rogers says Willis and the assistants didn't live up to all their promises.
"We got lured in because of Ray," she said. "He could be a car salesman. He puts up great offers that can't be fulfilled."
Last school year, Leah enrolled at Rainier Beach High School, still using a fake address. She graduated last spring.
Other parents say they also used false addresses to enroll their daughters at Chief Sealth, under the guidance of the basketball coaches.
Darliene Boswell said that in the spring of 2003, Walters recruited her daughter Denay, who was a sophomore point guard at Mariner High School near Everett.
Boswell said Walters convinced her that Denay could get a college scholarship if she transferred. He then gave her a fake lease, which she used to enroll Denay while they were still living in Everett, Boswell said.
"The parents get hooked in," Boswell said. "When someone says your daughter can get a scholarship, it's a big motivator."
Still, Boswell said, "I knew it was wrong. He said if anyone or the school asks, I was to say he was my brother."
Willis acknowledged only that he referred some parents, including Boswell, to his friend Bev Gray, a real-estate agent. Those parents, he said, had expressed interest in moving to Seattle.
Gray regularly attends Chief Sealth games and paid to have a Web site created for the team. The Web site (www.sealthladyhawks.com) contains pictures and profiles of the players and coaches and a glowing testimonial about Willis written by Gray. It also links to the school's Web site and to Gray's and Willis' e-mail addresses.
Boswell said she eventually moved into a West Seattle apartment Gray found for her. Denay played her junior and senior years at Chief Sealth and now plays basketball at Highline Community College.
Gray declined to be interviewed.
She also helped another parent, Willis said: John Yonich, whose 6-foot-2 daughter, Ashley, had been playing at Newport High School in Bellevue.
Yonich said Willis offered Ashley a free trip to a Las Vegas tournament in 2004, to play with Willis' summer team, after the two men met at a summer tournament in Seattle.
Ashley went to Vegas, and one week later John Yonich signed a one-year lease to stay in the basement of Gray's house. Yonich said he was looking for a place for him and his daughter to live in West Seattle because he was separated from his wife. Willis said he recommended Gray but didn't know Yonich ended up renting her basement.
That September, Ashley enrolled for her junior year at Chief Sealth using Gray's address. And John Yonich donated $3,200 to the Chief Sealth girls basketball program.
Ashley stayed at Chief Sealth one year and played for the team. She's now attending a private school in Woodinville.
WIAA rules forbid inducements such as helping move athletes and their parents or providing "residence with any school connected person."
One case involving a fake lease was detailed by Cheri Brooks, the guardian of Raevenna Rogers (no relation to Leah Rogers), who in the spring of 2003 was living in Burien and undecided about where to attend high school.
Brooks said coaches Willis and Fuller were recruiting Raevenna, then a promising eighth-grade basketball player. Brooks said Fuller, a longtime friend, gave her a fake lease indicating that Brooks was renting an apartment in West Seattle, so she could enroll Raevenna at Chief Sealth. Brooks even recalled that Willis drove her to a school enrollment center.
Willis promised to help Raevenna get a scholarship, Brooks said. He and Fuller even celebrated Brooks' birthday by taking her and her family out to dinner, and Willis bought banana cake and ice cream, Brooks said.
"I wondered why was he buying me a cake. He don't know me; he's not family or even a friend," Brooks said. "It felt like he was bribing us."
Raevenna said Fuller bought her other meals, too.
Willis denied ever buying meals for the family. Fuller "probably bought Raevenna a pop and some fries [or equivalent] once or twice," wrote Christopher Thayer, Willis' lawyer, in an e-mailed response to questions.
Buying a prospective student a meal is a violation of WIAA regulations.
Brooks enrolled Raevenna at Chief Sealth for the fall of 2004. She soon regretted it, and pulled Raevenna out before the school year started. Raevenna enrolled at Cleveland High School in Seattle, where she is a junior averaging 12 points.
Scouting middle schools
At the heart of Chief Sealth's superb squad are twin pillars of power, 6-foot-3 Regina Rogers and 6-foot-4 Christina Nzekwe, two dominant inside players considered locks for Division I scholarships.
Rogers, a cousin of Raevenna Rogers, is the leading scorer on the team, averaging 16 points. Nzekwe, who averages 10 points, is considered one of the most dynamic players in the state.
It's no coincidence both play for Chief Sealth.
Rogers and Nzekwe were recruited beginning in 2003, when they were eighth-graders playing for separate "select" teams — elite, hand-picked squads that compete against each other during the offseason.
Eddie Winston, Rogers' stepfather, said Regina had already enrolled at Seattle's Garfield High School before the ninth grade when Willis convinced Winston that Regina would develop into a better college-caliber player at Chief Sealth.
Willis then went a step further, making Winston a volunteer coach. Winston took the position, pulled Regina out of Garfield, and enrolled her at Chief Sealth.
"With me came my daughter, which is really what he wanted," Winston said.
Winston joined the coaching staff for one season but left after a conflict with Willis.
Nzekwe was first introduced to Chief Sealth by assistant coach Walters, who began approaching her in middle school, said her mother, Barbara Nzekwe.
Buck Buchanan, who coached that team, Y.E.S. (Youth Education and Sports), said Walters came to practices or games at least once a week when Nzekwe played for him. Willis also came on occasion, Buchanan said.
Barbara Nzekwe said Walters and Willis told her they could help Christina secure a college scholarship.
The select team that Winston's stepdaughter played for, the Puget Sound Emeralds, became a farm team for Willis and his assistants, ultimately providing Chief Sealth with four players: Rogers, Boswell, Valerie Cook and Ophelia Whitfield.
Cook's mother, Dee Snow, said Willis convinced her that her daughter had a better chance of getting a college scholarship if she attended Chief Sealth.
"He thought she was a natural — a Reggie Miller," Snow said, referring to the retired star guard for the Indiana Pacers.
"All of us at Emeralds thought it [Chief Sealth] was a land of opportunity. This is where your kid would be seen. He said he had all these connections at colleges. ... He sold us."
In some cases, the selling took awhile.
Whitfield, now a freshman playing at Shoreline Community College, said Willis tried to recruit her beginning in the eighth grade, when she played with the Emeralds and he was coaching at Eastside Catholic. Her dad wouldn't let her go, she said.
Whitfield moved around to several different schools, then enrolled at Chief Sealth for her senior season, after Willis guaranteed her she would be seen by college recruiters, she said.
Former Emeralds coach Tony Trahan said he didn't know recruiting rules at the time, and allowed Willis full access to parents at practices, games and tournaments. WIAA rules forbid coaches from recruiting middle-school students who are contemplating which high school to attend.
Willis "picked out the ones he wanted to go to his school, and started talking to the parents," Trahan said.
Trahan, who now coaches the girls team at Cleveland High School, said Willis even offered Trahan a junior-varsity coaching position at Chief Sealth in the summer of 2003.
"He thought I had a lock on the girls and could get a couple girls out of the program to add to his team," Trahan said.
Willis didn't always succeed with his pitch to middle-schoolers.
Nancy Combs says Walters began recruiting her daughter, Charnay, a basketball and track star, when she was in the sixth grade, three years ago.
At least once a month, Combs said, Willis or Walters called or dropped by Charnay's games. They promised her a starting spot on the basketball team, a Division I college scholarship and individualized attention on the track team, she said. Walters and Fuller also coach track at Chief Sealth.
"They keep pressing on your kid, they keep in contact with you," she said. "You just laugh. You can't do nothing but laugh. I didn't know they did this crap in middle school."
Charnay chose instead to attend Rainier Beach High School, where she is a freshman playing for the varsity.
Another parent who was savvy enough to resist Willis: Greg Lewis, a former football star at Seattle's Ingraham High School and the University of Washington who went on to play for the Denver Broncos.
Lewis said Willis relentlessly recruited his daughter, Briana, while she was playing on the Puget Sound Emeralds as an eighth-grader, in 2003.
Willis promised Briana, now a junior at Garfield, that she'd have a starting spot at Chief Sealth, Lewis said.
"As a parent, having gone through the whole athletic thing myself, I know promises like that are pretty shallow," said Lewis, now an assistant to the University of Washington athletic director. "I feel he wasn't being genuine, and he was willing to tell parents what they wanted to hear."
The principal of Chief Sealth High School, John Boyd, and the athletic director, Mike Kelly, say parents have complained to them about the tactics of these coaches. But they say the complaints weren't detailed enough to launch an investigation.
"If a parent says, 'You got problems here,' well, what problems?" Boyd said. "We have to have evidence. We have to have good enough reason to take action."
Faced with the details parents provided The Times, Boyd said he and school-district administrators would review the information and decide whether to pursue an investigation.
Thursday night, Chief Sealth is scheduled to play its first game in the Sea-King Class 3A District Tournament. The top four finishers in that tournament advance to state, which begins March 1.
If an investigation does conclude that Chief Sealth's coaches violated recruiting rules, the school could pay fines, forfeit games, sit out this year's postseason and / or give back last year's championship. In the 2005 title game, Chief Sealth beat River Ridge of Lacey, Thurston County, 71-54.
Times reporters have been investigating the allegations against Chief Sealth for several months, but only recently were able to get several parents and players to tell their stories in detail and for the record. After The Times began reporting, Willis enlisted the help of attorney Thayer and a public-relations agent.
The WIAA's Colbrese, who said he's never dealt with a recruiting case as serious as the allegations against Chief Sealth, stressed that there should be more to high-school sports than what happens on the court or field.
"The lessons passed on should be lifelong — about morals and ethics as well as teamwork and sportsmanship," Colbrese said. "If the allegations are true, these students aren't learning those lessons."
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or email@example.com
|Chief Sealth's winning season|
|The Chief Sealth girls basketball team has dominated all 22 opponents so far this season, beating one opponent by 84 points.|
|Nov. 30, 2005
|Jan. 4, 2006
|Total points for the season for Chief Sealth and its opponents: 1,491-657
Average margin of victory: 37.91 points