TUCSON – The day after Sabino High School’s baseball team won the 2018 3A state championship, the father of one of its players sent an email to the Arizona Interscholastic Association, accusing the coaching staff of cheating. Subsequent investigations by the Tucson Unified School District and the AIA resulted in the AIA revoking Sabino’s championship, the only time that’s happened in Arizona high school boys sports in 107 years.
“We were all just kind of in shock. We were like, ‘What’s going on?’ We thought it was like a prank,” said former Sabino player Diego Iturrios.
Iturrios was at the center of the investigation. Investigators found that Sabino Coach Mark Chandler had “prior contact” with Iturrios in the summer of 2017. Diego was transferring to Sabino and was not allowed to have contact with Chandler until after he enrolled on June 27.
“I didn’t meet him until I enrolled at Sabino,” Iturrios told the News 4 Tucson Investigators in his only interview since the championship was revoked.
But investigators believed the prior contact had occurred, while Iturrios played on a summer league team and Chandler was an assistant coach for another squad. Iturrios was interviewed by TUSD investigators on July 16, 2018. The News 4 Tucson Investigators have obtained the audio recording of that interview. We never heard Iturrios being asked when he first had contact with Coach Chandler. Here is the relevant exchange:
Investigator: “Did you ever work with him at the club teams?”
Iturrios: “No, not at all. Maybe he threw me BP once.”
Investigator: “Uh huh, I’ll buy it, alright.”
Iturrios confirmed to us that he was never asked the date that Chandler first instructed him. We asked him when it was. “Probably about a week after I enrolled at Sabino,” he said.” We asked, “And you’re positive?” He said, “Yes.”
Iturrios wrote a letter recently to investigators, saying, “I know Coach Chandler did not talk to me until after I enrolled at Sabino High School.”
We asked Iturrios, “Were you pressured into writing that letter?” “ No,” he said. “I actually really wanted to write that letter.”
Chandler resigned as head coach rather than get fired. The 51-year-old ex-Marine is battling throat cancer and still teaches at Sahuaro High School. He said, “I’m hoping the AIA will reopen this investigation and do the right thing, but there’s a possibility there could be legal action with the AIA.”
Chandler is considering a lawsuit because he claims the investigation was “botched.”
“There is no date when this alleged prior contact of myself throwing batting practice, it’s not asked. This had to happen in the month of June 2017.” Chandler maintains it is impossible to have happened then due to him being out of town state visiting family that month, or with his summer league team playing in Phoenix. We asked, “You’re positive it did not?” He replied, “I am absolutely 100 percent positive. That did not occur.”
The investigation also found that Chandler’s 2018 Sabino team bullied a player and called him a “retard.”
We asked Chandler, “Did you ever hear any of your assistants call this player a retard or did you ever call him that?” “No,” he said. “I never did and I never heard one of my assistant coaches directly refer to this player as that term.”
Chandler thinks TUSD might have feared a lawsuit from the parents of the player who was allegedly bullied if it had not recommended the title be stripped.
Jason Johnson played at Sabino for four years. He was a senior on the 2018 team whose title was vacated. Johnson is now a sophomore at UA. We asked him if he ever saw bullying. “Absolutely not,” he said. “There was no bullying.”
However, Sabino’s 2018 team was charged with five violations. Three were not sustained, two were. Besides the prior contact ruling, Sabino was also found to have paid an assistant coach with booster club money. Chandler claims he asked a Sabino administrator about that before-hand and was given approval.
Chandler has been in trouble before. He was reprimanded in 2015 while the coach at Sahuaro. Documents from the AIA showed that reprimand was for recruiting players.
We said to Chandler, “There’s an old saying, ‘Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. People watching this will say, ‘Hey, they were charged with five allegations, are you saying you did nothing wrong? You never cheated?”
“Oh I can guarantee you we didn’t cheat,” Chandler said. “Don’t need to cheat. The program had been down and because we turned it around so quickly, people just came to the conclusion, ‘They must have cheated.’”
At the end of TUSD’s interview with Iturrios, an investigator said something that now seems ironic to those who think the investigation was incomplete. “If you were me,” the investigator said, “what have I forgotten to ask you?”
The AIA and TUSD declined interviews. Spokespersons for both agencies said this case is closed.
If you have a story you’d like us to investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.