Middleton, Walby agree to "part ways"

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Rob Reischel
Middleton High School and hockey coach Steffon Walby agreed to "part ways" Friday./File photo

Middleton High School and boys hockey coach Steffon Walby have agreed to “part ways" following the use of an ineligible player.

Middleton asked the WIAA for an eligibility waiver for senior forward Joe O’Reilly in Oct., 2019, but that request was denied. But Walby played O’Reilly in 23 games, and he finished as the Cardinals’ third-leading scorer.

The WIAA received an anonymous tip about O'Reilly on Feb. 19, less than 24 hours after Middleton defeated Tomah/Sparta in its playoff opener. The Cardinals were then stripped of their playoff win, and Tomah/Sparta replaced Middleton in the regional final against Sun Prairie.

The Cardinals, who went 14-10 during the regular season, are also likely to be stripped of all their other wins.

After a week-long investigation, district administrators and Walby determined it was best for the program to start fresh.

“We are sorry for the pain this has caused our varsity boys hockey players,” Director of Communications Perry Hibner said. “No one wants or deserves to have their season end this way. The boys wanted to have a chance to play Sun Prairie and, hopefully, advance to sectionals and maybe beyond.”

Walby met with varsity players at the end of the school day Friday to inform them he would no longer be coaching. Hibner said varsity boys hockey families were also notified.
“I want to thank Middleton High School for the opportunity to coach these past six-plus years,” Walby said in a statement. “It has been an honor and I am proud of what we have accomplished on and off the ice.

“I have had an incredible team of coaches who have been instrumental to our success. I am going to miss working with the players. They are the backbone of any program and I have nothing but positive memories from my experiences with them.”

O'Reilly competed for the Cardinals in past seasons, but moved out of the district in 2018-’19. He moved back to the district this year, but his family remained out of state.

Under WIAA rules, this type of transfer calls for one year of non-varsity competition for the transferring student. Only through a successful appeal can an athlete participate.

WIAA deputy director Wade Labecki is responsible for eligibility issues. Labecki said earlier this week that after Middleton inquired about O’Reilly’s eligibility, he ruled against it and sent an email to Cardinals’ athletic director Bob Joers that included the phrase “no participation” for O’Reilly.

According to Labecki, Joers said he then forwarded that email to Walby. Joers has refused to answer any questions throughout this process, and it remains unclear if he will face any disciplinary action for this fiasco.

Joers learned that he had pancreatic cancer at roughly the same time O'Reilly's waiver was being denied. Joers immediately reduced his workload to just a couple hours a day, which could have played a role in O'Reilly continuing to skate.

O'Reilly told the Times-Tribune that he was never informed that he was ineligible.

“I was not involved in the process of proving my eligibility and no one approached me with the fact that I wasn't,” O'Reilly said. 

Hibner said that MHS needs to improve processes and systems inside its athletic department. Hibner declined to elaborate what those might be.

Walby was named Middleton’s head coach in April, 2014, after the controversial dismissal of Steve and Tony Libert.

Walby, a Madison Edgewood graduate, had extensive coaching experience in professional minor leagues during and after his 11-year playing career. But Walby was fired just months after guiding the Mississippi Surge to the 2011 East Coast Hockey League championship, and moved back to the Madison area.

Walby went 53-16-2 in his first three seasons (.761) at MHS with many of the players the Liberts had groomed. In the last three years, though, Middleton is 39-30-3 (.563).

For now, Walby’s overall record at MHS stands at 92-46-5. But that mark will fall to 78-60-5 if the Cardinals are forced to forfeit all of their 2019-’20 wins, as expected.

Walby inherited a program that reached the WIAA state tournament three times between 2003-’11 under the Liberts. Middleton’s 2011 team also reached the state championship game, the best finish in school history.

Walby guided Middleton to the sectional finals in both 2015 and 2016. In the four years since, though, the Cardinals haven’t advanced past a sectional semifinal and were ousted in regionals twice.

“We want to thank Steffon for his six years as the varsity boys hockey coach,” Hibner said. “He came in under not the easiest of circumstances, yet our program continued to have success in the Big Eight, arguably the best boys hockey conference in Wisconsin.”

Walby met with district administrators Wednesday morning. Joers had a separate meeting later that same morning.

By the end of the day Friday, the Walby-era was over.

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