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De George: PIAA reclassification’s author sees more changes down the road

Bob Tonkin’s first response to his email mirrored his view of the subject matter.

Before Tonkin made any definitive statements about the new PIAA football classification system that he designed, he replied politely, he wanted to elicit feedback from stakeholders across the state. Just as when Tonkin, a long-time sports administrator from District 9, recognized the need for a new structure by collaborating with parties state-wide, he knew the initial verdict on the scheme that crowns its first champions this weekend in Hershey would originate from the coaches and officials living its nuances.

Tonkin’s findings reflect his receptiveness for diverse perspectives. In its first season, he’s pleased with the new order but not blinded to adjustments that can optimize its utility.

North Penn’s Dan Drop tries to cling to the shirt tail of Prep’s D’Andre Swift in the PIAA semifinal last Friday. Under alterations to the new PIAA classification system proposed by the scheme’s designer, North Penn could find itself in a “Super 700” class in the future. (Digital First Media/Bob Raines)

“Everybody I’ve talked to state-wide, everyone is very much in favor it,” Tonkin told PaPrepLive Wednesday. “I think things went far more smoothly than what people thought they would. But there are a couple of minor things that need to be looked at.”

That smoothness doesn’t preclude Tonkin from pushing for alterations, and among the biggest issues he hopes to address is the resurrection of the “Super 700” plan, which partitions the largest enrollment schools into Class 6A, dividing the rest of the state equally into five classes.

Tonkin’s zeal for finding cooperative solutions stems from his background as, “the old guy on the block,” as he puts it. His experience as an educator has brought him to every corner of the state. He attended (the now closed) West Pittstown High in the Scranton area and matriculated to East Stroudsburg University. In his retirement, he holds a litany of titles — secretary/treasurer, district chairman for football and track and field as well as other initiatives, plus sits on numerous committees — in District 9, which encompasses the rural tranche of north-central/western Pa. around towns like Bradford and Dubois.

A move toward broad reclassification failed on several occasions in the last two decades, most recently in 2009, but Tonkin’s diligence propelled it through initial opposition from strong constituencies last year.

Tonkin devised the arrangement to solve a handful of obvious problems; on those objectives, the system has succeeded.

Football champions will be crowned over three days this weekend, long before Christmas and with diminished impingement on the winter season, which begins Friday. Player safety is paramount to Tonkin, who likened the schedule for a potential state champion to that of a college football team, sans bye weeks or bowl breaks. The optional play/scrimmage date and reduction of practices/games in frigid December conditions struck a compromise there.

Tonkin is also heartened by feedback from the WPIAL (District 7), which had bristled at the six-class plan’s disruption of its hallowed day of four championship games at Heinz Field. This year, classes 3A-6A played at the Steelers’ home in a quadruple-header Nov. 18, with the A and 2A games moved a week later to Robert Morris University.

Conflicts persist, though. Among those that Tonkin cited involve District 10, borne of the specter of private-school powerhouse Erie Cathedral Prep, which plays Imhotep Charter for the 4A title Thursday night. Rather than compete with the Ramblers, nine schools whose calculated enrollments qualified for 4A opted to play up in 5A.

That predicament and others is why Tonkin is revisiting former plans. When first broached in the spring of 2015, Tonkin presented two sets of the same four plans, with and without a provision for calculating enrollment of charter/cyber/home-school students that was eventually passed overwhelmingly by the PIAA. Beyond the approved six-class plan and a restatement of the status quo of four, each evenly divided by enrollment, Tonkin also presented the “Super 700” and “Super 800” plans. Those would’ve isolated teams above 700 and 800 enrolled male students, respectively, into a class, with the rest of the state evenly divided among the other five, with the existing option to play up but not down.

“Now that the playoffs have expanded, I think it’s time for the 700-plus,” Tonkin said. “It evens the playing field in other classes, but teams can always play up.”

In local terms, the “Super 700” would relegate Haverford, Garnet Valley and Penn Wood (plus 6A finalist St. Joseph’s Prep and both Downingtown schools) to 5A, and the equal reshuffle would reverberate down, with small 5A teams moving to 4A, and so on. The smallest football school in 6A for 2016-17 is Central Dauphin East, with 564 boys.

Tonkin, who’ll spend a busy weekend in Hershey obtaining input, hopes to reintroduce the “Super 700” plan at the January meeting of the football steering committee. With the PIAA operating under two-year cycles, change is unlikely to be implemented next year, waiting for the 2018-19 school year and a recount of enrollment undertaken in the fall of 2017.

One facet not yet on Tonkin’s radar is the possibility of a public/private split, which engenders particular fervor in sections of southeastern Pennsylvania and is likely to be stoked by March’s basketball finals. (For the record, Tonkin’s initial six-class plan was isolated to football, but he was “happily surprised” when the PIAA broke protocol in Oct. 2015 to expand in other sports, including six in boys and girls basketball, on first reading rather than the usual three. “It saved me a lot of work,” Tonkin said.)

A public/private split entered Tonkin’s mind in crafting the six-class systems but never progressed to a formal framework.

“I certainly looked at it, but it was not part of it because I knew it wouldn’t go anywhere,” he said. “… Was it a thought? Yes. Was it something that I thought would pass? No.”

Regardless of what lies ahead, Tonkin is maintaining the process and spirit that brought his plans to fruition, one that resonated with the PIAA where others had failed.

“The purpose,” Tonkin said, “is to give more kids and more schools the opportunity to move up in the class they’re supposed to be in.”

To contact Matthew De George, email mdegeorge@delcotimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.

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