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Coaches, ADs agree first year of new PIAA classification showed more positives than negatives

WEST CHESTER >> The first academic year using the PIAA’s expanded classification system recently ended. And even though we are only halfway through the initial two-year experiment, some interesting impressions have already formed.

“Change is always difficult and sometimes it takes a while to accept things,” said West Chester Henderson Athletic Director Ken McCormick. “In five or 10 years from now, most won’t even know we did this.”

What is ‘this?’ Well, in October of 2015, after 10 months of debate, the PIAA Board of Directors voted to expand the district and state playoff classifications for a total of 11 sports starting with the 2016-17 season. Football, boys’ and girls’ basketball, baseball and softball was increased from four to six classes. Boys’ and girls’ soccer and volleyball was expanded to four, field hockey to three, and boys’ and girls’ lacrosse to two.

The primary stated goals for the change were twofold: to create a more even playing field, and to give more teams an opportunity to participate in the postseason.

“One of the goals was to give teams more of an opportunity, which it certainly did,” said Chris Lunardi, the athletic director at West Chester Rustin.

It also addressed some of the enrollment inequities, according to Lunardi. For example, the previous 4A classification for District 1 football, he pointed out, included Rustin – which has an enrollment of just over 1,200 – to North Penn, with over 3,000.

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“Now, the smaller 4As are with other schools their size,” Lunardi added. “A lot of the schools in the Ches-Mont are a prime example. We used to be small 4As and now we are in that 5A group. It leveled the playing field for some schools and gave those schools a better chance to advance in the district playoffs.”

It also helped in other sports, like boys lacrosse. With about 1,250 students, Henderson was placed in the 2A class while bigger schools like Conestoga and Avon Grove went to 3A. As a result, the Warriors wound up getting a chance to play for the 2A district title and later the state lacrosse championship.

“From a Henderson perspective, we loved it,” McCormick said. “It was a great experience for our kids. It gave us an opportunity in district play and then in the state tournament to have a chance against same sized schools.”

The advantages of the new classifications, however, weren’t as apparent for the larger schools. In boys’ lacrosse, for example, Avon Grove and Conestoga faced off for the 2017 3A crown at both the district final and state final, which would have probably been the matchup in the old system. But now, Henderson got its chance at 2A.

“I have divided feelings about it,” said Conestoga boys lacrosse head coach Brody Bush. “It’s been good if you consider the growth of lacrosse, but at the same time it was nice to have one champion.”

When the PIAA began sponsoring a state lacrosse championship in 2009, there were about 120 programs in the state, according to Bush. Now there are more than 200.

Brant Billingsly (center, Central Bucks East) runs upfield with the ball while Shane Cassel (left) and Blake Rondeau (La Salle) guard him Saturday during the PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals. Lacrosse’s shift to two classifications gave more teams a shot, but the usual suspects made a deep run into the playoffs.
(Rachel Wisniewski/For Digital First Media)

“That’s 80-plus schools that have added lacrosse in the last eight years, and I think a lot of it has to do with the PIAA,” he said. “And with that growth, I think there had to be an expansion. I think that’s why they did it.”

Much like the way things work at the NCAA Division I level, football was the driving force behind the change in Pennsylvania.

“The PIAA was talking about more classifications for football and then all of the sudden they suspended protocol when they added the other sports,” McCormick pointed out.

“Whether you’re talking the Ches-Mont or the SEC, football tends to be a driving factor,” Lunardi agreed. “There is more interest in football so it tends to drive the decisions.

“There is one major difference: In major college football, it’s all about the revenue. In high school football, that’s not necessarily the case. It is still a negative on the budget just like every other sport.”

And expanding the classes did potentially increase expenses. Teams that are in the playoffs that weren’t before now have to cover the costs for transportation, officials and paying coaches for extended seasons.

“But it’s worth it,” McCormick said.

Academy Park defensive end Togba Porte, right, receives the District 1 championship trophy from Dr. Randy Ireson, vice chairman of District 1. Academy Park was the first Class 5A winner. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

The new classifications may have addressed some of the problems associated with enrollment, but inequities remain. A big one is whether or not high schools draw their student-athletes from fixed areas.

“I think it was a good first step,” McCormick said. “I’m still a believer that there should be separate classifications for boundary and non-boundary schools. That would really level the playing field.

“I don’t want to make it about it private versus public. The fact is that the West Chester school district’s boundary is set, whereas some other schools can draw from a larger pool.”

A primary complaint about the new classifications is that it would diminish the value of qualifying for the playoffs and ultimately cheapen the accomplishment of winning a district or a state title. And there is some anecdotal evidence that the former was an issue during 2016-17.

“When we made the brackets the sizes that we did, we knew we were going to have teams get into the playoffs with sub-.500 records, and that doesn’t always sit well with people,” said Lundardi, who is on the District 1 Playoff Committee.

“In talking with other athletic directors, I’ve heard that some teams are getting into the playoffs maybe shouldn’t be in,” McCormick reported. “Some of the first round playoff games were pretty lopsided. We had teams getting in with losing records, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

PETE BANNAN — DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA FILE
Springfield and Rustin played a District 1 Class 4A field hockey play-in game, only to see Springfield lose 14-0 to No. 1 Villa Maria in the second round.

The Rustin field hockey team, for example, went 4-10-4 during the regular season and still managed to slip into the District 1 Tournament. The Golden Knights lost to Springfield-Delco, who then lost 14-0 in the second round to Villa Maria.

“They got in because that’s what the power points said, but I don’t know that it was a great experience for them to go and lose … in the first round,” Lunardi said.

There is, however, much less merit to the argument that it would somehow lessen the impact of a championship run.

“It was an honor for us to win the district title, no matter what class it was,” Bush said.

“I looked at the faces of our kids, whether they were playing for a district title or a state title, and it meant the same to them as it would have if there were fewer classifications,” McCormick added. “It’s all about giving kids fair opportunities.”

For perspective, Lunardi harkened back to 2008, when the Rustin football team captured the 3A district crown.

“I feel good about what those kids accomplished in ’08 even though it wasn’t in 4A, which was the biggest,” he said.

“That’s a natural response, but I don’t think it cheapens anything, it’s just a different standard. I don’t like the word “cheapen” because it implies the kids didn’t try as hard.”

There was one intended consequence and it is related to football. Under the new setup, the goal was to shrink the season by a week, so that the state title games could be played by the first weekend in December. But teams are still playing 10 regular season games, so the end result was simply an earlier start.

“The negative is that we are now playing two games prior to Labor Day,” McCormick said. “And this summer practice starts on August 7th. That kind of robs the kids of a summer.”

Even though the new classifications extend through the 2017-18 academic year, it doesn’t mean that the PIAA or District 1 won’t potentially make some minor changes in the coming months. It’s quite certain, however, that the new system is here to stay.

“I certainly don’t think the state is going to reduce classifications, but there will be tweaks at the District 1 level,” Lunardi predicted. “I doubt if there will be any changes for the fall, but we always try to revisit issues and make sure we are doing the right thing for the kids.”

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