Hilton Head Island High School baseball coach Chris Wells resigned Thursday after the S.C. High School League informed the school that its baseball program had committed infractions regarding the eligibility of one of its players.
Wells had been suspended since Monday after the school first became aware late last week of potential violations involving the eligibility of junior Ryan Cherry after his transfer from Bluffton to Hilton Head High.
"We got word from the High School League that it is definitely a High School League violation," principal Amanda O'Nan said. "At this point, what we've done is self-sanction ourselves, essentially. Chris Wells stepped down as baseball coach. Obviously, we're in the process of meeting with coaches, teams and parents literally as we speak."
Hilton Head High now waits to hear from SCHSL commissioner Jerome Singleton about possible penalties once the league reviews the school's self-sanction. The league could opt to fine the school and/or take away victories.
The SCHSL office was closed Thursday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.
"My resignation today serves as a message to the SCHSL that the student-athletes come first as they decide the severity of the consequences against the baseball program," Wells said in an emailed statement.
The team's group of assistant coaches will take over for the remainder of the season, O'Nan said. The principal will sit down soon with athletics director Joe Monmonier to begin the search for a new head caoch, but she did not envision one being hired before the end of the season.
Blair Carson has served as the Seahawks' third-base coach over the last two games in Wells' absence and likely will continue to handle the duties for the rest of the year.
"We think the boys are in capable hands," O'Nan said.
Cherry, meanwhile, will not be able to participate with the Seahawks until a ruling comes down from the SCHSL. The junior's eligibility came into question last week after the league discovered he pitched over the summer for the American Legion Post 185 team, the Lowcountry Heat. The SCHSL determined that Wells was a coach for that club, contradicting rules that a player must sit out a year should he transfer to the school of a coach for which he played for on an outside team.
Mike Cherry said his son never met Wells prior to this season and was not present during the one game Wells coached in last summer. He said he was "99 percent sure" that his son ultimately would become eligible this season.
"I think so," he said. "I don't think the team will forfeit any games. I think the league will accept that because they know there was no intent here. They know that no recruiting happened. They know that they never even saw each other.
"Chris Wells didn't talk to me. He didn't talk to my son. There was no intent here. I think they get that."
Mike Cherry maintains that members of Bluffton High's athletics department reported the violation to the SCHSL. Bobcats athletics director Dave Adams would not comment on those allegations Tuesday, but Wells referenced the two programs' relationship in his statement.
"Additionally, I hope that sometime in the near future that the Hilton Head/Bluffton 'rivalry' can mature into a healthy one," Wells wrote. "I firmly believe that both schools along with our district have the proper leadership in place to accomplish this and I wish them the very best at achieving this. We owe that to the next generation of students."
Wells was hired in 1998 by then-athletics director Greg Elliott before going on to compile a 271-122 record during his 15-plus seasons with the Seahawks. The 2011 Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette coach of the year had the Seahawks at 7-0 and 5-0 in Region 8-AAA this year before beginning his suspension.
"During my 15 years as head coach at HHIHS, I was blessed to work with so many fantastic young men and will always hold those relationships closest to my heart," Wells wrote. "It has been my goal to teach young men through the game of baseball to follow rules, play with passion, work hard and live life without regrets. I have called Seahawk Baseball my family for the past 15 seasons and it is with clear conscience that I say goodbye today.
"Mrs. O'Nan and Joe Monmonier are in charge of the best athletic program in South Carolina and it has been my honor to be a small part of our Seahawk Nation."
Fort Dorchester coach Jack Radcliffe, a longtime friend of Wells and former high school teammate, called The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette to express his disappointment in the resignation.
"I'm real upset about this resignation, whether it's forced or not," he said. " ... He's one of my great friends and I'm real upset about this whole ordeal."
"I think that Chris is completely innocent to the situation," he added. "Situations like this happen all the time, with the way travel ball teams are nowadays. Kids transfer all the time. I don't think it was an illegal recruitment thing at all. In fact, I would be willing to bet that Chris was completely naive to the whole situation."
Wells' program came under scrutiny last April, when the Seahawks were fined $5,500 after playing five ineligible players in a spring break tournament, violating SCHSL bylaws that stipulate athletes can compete in no more than two tournaments in a given season.
That fine, which was $300 per game per player, could again be levied against the Seahawks by the SCHSL. O'Nan could not speculate on what penalties the school may incur now that Wells has resigned.
"Obviously it's upsetting," she said. "This has been his passion. He's coached for the high school for 15-plus years. It's not the way he anticipated to leave, clearly. But as he told the baseball team, he's doing this for the students and hopes that this self-sanctioning will lessen any consequences on the team or on a player."