Good Sunday to you all.

Now that the PIAA winter sports season is officially concluded with the crowning of champions in boys and girls basketball, it’s time to look back at the first season with six classifications.

That’s where the PIAA is starting with the formation of a Competition Committee “to review all aspects of competition, including classifications, transfers, school definitions and competitive balance.”

Dr. Robert Lombardi

You can be as critical as you want with the PIAA and how it governs high school athletics in the state, but what you can’t do is say Dr. Robert Lombardi ignores issues. He doesn’t. He listens and he is proactive. He defines what it means to be a leader of an organization with hundreds of members with more than hundreds of agendas.

Clearly, each sports season has its challenges. More teams want a shot at the postseason, Dr. Lombardi and his committees expanded several sports. The public vs. private issue isn’t going away and it is the hottest button issue, especially when it comes to basketball. And recruiting and transferring of players. These are all issues, Dr. Lombardi and the body will investigate through this committee and it is a step in a direction that will head to a more competitive balance.

In the fall, despite a move to six classifications, four of the six state champions were either a private or parochial school: 

  • Bishop Guilfoyle (1A)
  • Cathedral Prep (4A)
  • Archbishop Wood (5A)
  • St. Joseph’s Prep (6A)

In the winter, the boys basketball state champions representing private or parochial schools were:

  • Kennedy Catholic (1A)
  • Sewickley Academy (2A)
  • Neumann-Goretti (3A)
  • Imhotep Charter (4A)
  • Archbishop Wood (5A)

In girls basketball, state champions representing private or parochial schools were:

  • Lebanon Catholic (1A)
  • Neumann-Goretti (3A)
  • Bethlehem Catholic (4A)
  • Archbishop Wood (5A)

That’s a high percentage with only 5 public schools with enrollments dictated by residential boundaries capturing state championships.

The statistics draw the ire of public school athletic administrators and boils the blood of passionate fan bases, which believe more strongly than ever, even with additional classifications, they have no chance to defeat these super teams which can pull athletes from outside their hometown, and even outside the state.

It brings us to Friday night. Abington Heights players and coaches watched as Archbishop Wood, which only two days earlier ended their season, won the PIAA Class 5A title with a 73-40 win over Meadville, a public school located in Crawford County in the northeast part of the state.

Seth Maxwell
Photo by Christopher Dolan

I’m certain the Abington Heights contingency had thoughts dancing through its head, wondering “What if?”

  • What if, Abington Heights played Meadville for the Pennsylvania Public School state championship.
  • What if, Archbishop Wood, a Philadelphia Catholic League program from Warminster, had to play one classification higher because it was a private school with limitless enrollment boundaries.
  • What if, Abington Heights got to play in the bottom half of the bracket rather than having to run a gauntlet against Philadelphia-area basketball powers?

And there had to be some grumblings in Nanticoke, which watched Imhotep Charter defeat Erie Strong Vincent, 80-52, in the boys Class 4A state final. Nanticoke was eliminated in the semifinals by Imhotep Charter, 60-23.

Without question the PIAA hears these concerns. It isn’t ignorant to some of the competitive inequities which exist. But, understand, first and foremost, a lot of the time the organization’s hands are tied against some of these accusations

In 1972, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a law allowing private and parochial schools equal admittance into the PIAA. That means, the schools are to be treated the same as public schools regarding how they are classified. The PIAA often points to that law as one it is not willing to fight against both legally and financially.

As Dr. Lombardi said:

“Unless the state legislature is going to change that ruling, and I don’t see that happening, that is not going to change. If something changes, we would follow the directive.”  

However, with the formation of this Competition Committee, there is likely going to be some headway. Maybe not the wholesale changes everyone is seeking, but there will be reform.

The Competition Committee will look into creative ways to make this situation more fair for everyone. They are going to look into the way California and Indiana state organizations classify teams based on success of programs. They will look into ways the PIAA can legally classify teams based on enrollment. And the elephant in the room will be whether there is any way to get to a public vs. private school format without legal ramifications.

Additionally, the Committee will need to look at the transfer rule. In this state athletes are not allowed to transfer schools for athletic purposes. Yet, we see it every year, when even the most novice fan can identify an athletic transfer. What happens from a PIAA perspective is, students and families have legal rights. And lawyers are paid top dollar to defend those rights and find the tiniest loop hole or detour around the PIAA “transfer rule.” It’s a tough situation, one that seems to become murkier and murkier, and costlier and costlier, each season.

But, again, with this Committee, now the PIAA is showing an active concern in addressing problems that plague high school athletics.

Now, all of that being said, we in Northeastern Pennsylvania have to remember:

  • Scranton Prep, a private Jesuit school, has won a Class 3A football championship and a Class 4A basketball championship in boys athletics.
  • Holy Redeemer, a parochial school, swept the boys and girls Class 3A basketball championships.
  • Holy Cross, a parochial school, won the boys Class 2A basketball championship.

And they won those titles against public schools.

Also, there are athletes transferring schools here too, with the simple stroke of a pen by a principal, signing off on it. And there will be more moving forward.

So, when the cries of equality come, just be reminded the concerns are also here at home, not just when our teams qualify for the state tournaments and get defeated or eliminated by schools from the Philadelphia-area, the Harrisburg-area, the Lehigh Valley, the York-area or Western Pennsylvania-area.

It will be interesting to see where these meetings lead. Now the 2017-18 season is the second of a two-year cycle, so this is the time now when the PIAA starts looking at ways to improve for the next cycle which begins with the 2018-19 school year.

Dr. Lombardi. …

“We are going to take a look at everything. We had a very good first meeting and we will have another in May.”

For now, all teams in NEPA should be proud of their seasons.