2011-05-26 / Local & State

Class Struggles Gripping PIAA

By Mike Drago
READING EAGLE

READING, Pa. (AP) – Toph Miller was not about to tell his players they didn’t stand a chance in their PIAA boys basketball tournament opener this season.

No coach would ever do that.

Still, as Wyomissing took the court to face top-ranked Imhotep Charter, the Spartans coach knew his undermanned team would have to play a perfect game just to stay close.

“They had 10 guys on that team that were off the charts,’’ Miller said. “They had six kids who were scholarship material.’’

The Panthers, with three seniors already committed to Division I programs, won the Class AA matchup by 42 points.

The Spartans stood little chance.

Of course, they weren’t alone. Imhotep didn’t lose a single game to a PIAA opponent this season. It lost just once to a Pennsylvania team, Friends, a member of the Inter-Academic League; its other losses came to teams from Dallas and New York City.

Imhotep – which like other charter schools in Philadelphia can draw students from throughout the city – was joined in the PIAA boys hoops winner’s circle in March by Neumann-Goretti, a member of the Philadelphia Catholic League, and Math, Civics and Sciences, another Philadelphia charter. Chester, in Quad-A, was the lone public school among boys state champions.

Five of the eight boys basketball teams that made it to Bryce Jordan Center to play for a state title this season were non- boundary schools.

Five of the eight girls teams were, too.

That’s nothing new in Pennsylvania, where parochial schools – fueled by well-established feeder systems, strong traditions and, some have claimed, a penchant for recruiting players – have long dominated the state hoops scene.

There’s growing concern that the competition is out of balance and that public boundary schools are no longer on a level playing field when matched against nonboundary schools – be they Catholic, Christian, private or charter schools.

Some coaches and fans from public schools have railed against this for years. The ire seems to be intensifying, fueled by the growth of charter schools – some of which are stocked, not so coincidentally, with an inordinate number of very tall, very fast student-athletes.

“It’s an annual conversation, typically heightened at the close of each basketball season,’’ Mark Byers, assistant executive director of the PIAA, said of the long-simmering public vs. private debate. “There’s an outcry anytime there’s disproportionate success by non-boundary schools.’’

The outcry is the loudest during basketball season, most agree, because nonboundary schools have enjoyed such success.

The problem of alleged recruiting and of talented players regularly jumping to top-flight programs exists in sports across the board, but basketball seems to be a lightning rod for the debate – and for good reason.

Over the last decade, half of the boys basketball championships in Pennsylvania have been won by nonboundary schools – a group that represents less than 22 percent of PIAA membership.

The numbers are even more staggering in girls basketball: 29 of the 40 state champs over the last 10 years, or 72.5 percent, have come from non-boundary schools. In 2003 and 2005 all four girls champs hailed from non-boundary schools.

In one-third of all basketball championship games, both participants were from non-boundary schools.

Three-fourths of all state title games in basketball have included at least one non-boundary school during the past decade.

“Something’s amiss,’’ suggested Miller.

The situation may have reached a tipping point in March when an article in Philadelphia Magazine exposed the depth of recruiting that goes on in the Inter- Ac and Philly Catholic leagues.

It was an eye- opening tale, even for those who regularly deal with scholastic sports, and it caught the attention of some influential people in Mechanicsburg – namely at the PIAA office.

“It’s disturbing that individuals would go to such lengths,’’ Byers said of the unabashed recruiting tactics, both by schools from the Inter-Ac, which is not affiliated with the PIAA and plays by its own rules, and the Catholic League, which is part of the PIAA.

“ That’s certainly not what our organization stands for,’’ Byers said.

PIAA executive director Brad Cashman was so dismayed by the revelations in the Philadelphia Magazine article that he handed out copies to administrators from the Philadelphia Public and Catholic leagues when he addressed the District 12 meeting several weeks ago.

Cashman reminded these schools that they agreed to play by PIAA rules when they came on board with the state organization several years ago.

“It was a very frank discussion,’’ Byers said.

Promising to adhere by the rules is one thing; following through is another.

Schools and coaches throughout the state and across the spectrum of sports know they can skirt, or even ignore, rules regarding recruiting because there’s practically no way they’ll get caught cheating.

Unlike the well-funded NCAA, the PIAA does not have the resources to closely monitor its nearly 800 members nor the financial might to stand up to potential lawsuits.

“Without an investigative arm, what we rely on is the honesty of the individuals,’’ Byers said. “ That’s the quandary we’re in.’’

So, what to do?

One way to level the playing field, some believe, is to reclassify the non-boundary schools, increasing their enrollment by a formula that would force many to play in higher classifications. Several states already have done this.

The PIAA’s Strategic Planning Committee is discussing ways to address the issue and could go in that direction.

One idea that seemed to spark a fire came from Elco athletic director Doug Bohannon, the junior high/middle school representative on the PIAA Board of Control.

He informally tossed it out at the end of the board’s March meeting, and it generated instant reaction.

The “Bohannon Plan’’ would take the top 25 percent of all non-boundary schools and reclassify them as Quad-A, regardless of their enrollment; the nextlargest

25 percent would be Triple-A; and so on.

The boundary schools would be reclassified in the same manner, with the top 25 percent being Quad-A, the next 25 percent Triple-A, etc.

All PIAA members would continue to compete against each other for district and state championships.

Non-boundary schools such as Trinity, Lancaster Catholic and Imhotep could be bumped up a class or more.

Boundary schools, such as Schuylkill Valley, could be reclassified lower.

“It would make sense,’’ said Brandywine Heights athletic director Bobby Kurzweg, “that if they (nonboundary schools) are allowed to (draw from larger areas), to bump them up a classification.’’

Bohannon said he believes his plan, simple as it is, meets the eye test.

“Garden Spot and Cocalico, they’re playing Quad-A,’’ he said. “They’re definitely not Quad-A when you think of what Quad-A basketball is. My school is Triple-A in track (the largest classification); we have no business running against schools like McCaskey or Reading.’’

Bohannon’s plan has not been formalized as a proposal; it may, in fact, never make it to the PIAA Board of Control level. Non-boundary schools are sure to object, possibly with legal action.

Still, after prolonged debate, there’s a feeling that something is about to change. That simmering pot appears ready to boil over.

“I’m not certain what will happen,’’ Byers said, “(but) something will happen.’’

Return to top