When LeAnn Johnson arrived at Richland High School for the PIAA girls volleyball finals in November 2015, she knew her Fort LeBoeuf squad could be in for a tough time.
Johnson has spent 11 seasons growing the Bison into a fixture on the state volleyball scene, all from a public school in a one-stoplight borough in Erie County, the northwest corner of Pennsylvania that juts into the Great Lake whose name the county bears. In her decade at the helm, Johnson counts one pupil standing 6 feet or taller for a sport whose action is generated well off the floor.
As she gazed on the Berks Catholic team warming up that day, she ominously scanned a backline of hitters all standing 5-foot-11 or above.
“Once we rotated around, we had nobody left,” Johnson recalled. “We had to match up our girls with their big guns, and then now what? We didn’t produce the second time around.”
The 2015 trip was Fort LeBoeuf’s fourth straight berth in the PIAA Class 2A title game. The Bison were handed a third straight loss, in four sets, to Berks. All three conquerors possess a similar appellation: Delone Catholic in 2013, Bethlehem Catholic in 2014 and Berks Catholic in 2015 (Fort LeBoeuf, representing District 10, had topped Delone in the 2012 final). Since 2013, eight of the nine PIAA volleyball titles outside of the largest classification have been claimed by non-public schools (the lone holdout is Cory, which ousted District 10 rival North Star in the Class 2A final last fall).
Johnson, an accomplished player at Windber High and Gannon University, understands the grim arithmetic that a volleyball team is only as good as its weakest link. All it can take is one bad rotation, relentlessly exploited by a pinpoint server or strategic attack plan, to irretrievably shift the momentum of a set and a match. The daughter of volleyball coaches, Johnson also is aware of her program’s limitations — if a particular birth year is missing a star outside hitter, for instance, there’s no recourse. You just move on trying to minimize the detriment.
The conundrum Johnson and her volleyball team faces isn’t new, even if it’s gaining greater statistical heft with each passing installment of PIAA championships. A disproportionate share of titles is being won by private schools, a discussion surfacing most vociferously after the football and basketball championships. But the paradigm of domination by private schools isn’t limited to even a handful of sports. The perceived imbalance fosters animosity on all sides, from allegations of lopsided playing fields to the well-worn “sour grapes” trope hurled toward the defeated.
It leads to the weaponization of terms like “recruiting” and “transfers,” manufacturing a strain of tribalism that becomes most pronounced as the postseason rolls around. It causes a large segment of the high school community to fantasize about the possibility of crowning separate champions, for public schools and non-public programs, in a bid to, as they see it, level the playing field.
The issue has long been a flashpoint in the halls of power of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, but remedies to the rancor remain elusive for reasons that range from the ideological to the procedural, that cleave across overarching social, class and geographic trends in the Commonwealth. Many people involved in athletics submit to the inevitability of a perpetual state of discord, instead working within the confines of the system than bristling at it, trying to maximize the benefit of an imperfect system than seeking the mythical solution that will make everyone happy.
What is certain is that the discussions seem nowhere near an end, having recurred cyclically over the last two decades like an albatross reintroducing itself to a sea-weary ship’s crew. With the PIAA instituting six classes in several sports last year and expanding championships across the board, the discussion has gained new life and new efforts within the PIAA, which is investigating the question and could generate proposals for action as soon as this week, as the organization gathers for one of this year’s six meetings.
Within that framework, PAPrepLive has sought to provide answers to the queries that haunt high school athletics. Over the course of several months, we have interviewed dozens of stakeholders across the state, spanning an array of geographic areas and constituencies. This cross-section of coaches, athletic directors and administrators encompasses a variety of sports and leagues in a state where the conversation, like its athletics governing body, is far more mosaic than monolith.
Over the next four days, we’ll present those perspectives, examining how the state arrived at the status quo and what tensions that arrangement currently withstands. We’ll apply numbers to what is often voiced as a nebulous (and in the eyes of some, unfounded or overblown) predicament, one couched in obfuscation and hollow solutions billed as panaceas.
Along the way, we’ll wrestle with questions that everyone associated with the sporting complex in Pennsylvania will recognize. Is there a way to improve competitive balance statewide? Is the problem merely one of perception for which private schools are being scapegoated? And in all of these debates about who should have what degree of access to trophies that bolster the resumes of coaches and players alike, does the conversation of who wins threaten to override the stated emphasis upon who plays and why?
The answers often prove conflicting or incomplete. But the questions, voiced incessantly in various forms over decades, show no signs of abating.
Everyone has heard a tale like the one Johnson tells about her volleyball team, a public school run over by a private school program drawing from a vast geographic area. The examples are pervasive and seductive in their veneer of impropriety.
One need only look at the tweets streaming by from Class 6A football champ St. Joseph’s Prep on February’s National Signing Day to see all the New Jersey hometowns listed on recruiting bios to feel a knee-jerk disquiet. The instances are too numerous to list, and they stir strong passions — whether it’s the PIAA Class 3A boys 500-yard freestyle record being held by Moorestown, N.J., native Matthew Belecanech of St. Joe’s Prep for nearly a decade, or the two wrestling state titles won by Ryan Diehl, who commuted daily from his home in West Virginia to Trinity High School outside Harrisburg.
But sorting through reams of championship data, there’s an elemental question that must proceed: Are private/charter schools winning a disproportionate number of PIAA and district titles than their public counterparts? The short answer, as uncovered by a mathematical analysis performed by PAPrepLive, is yes.
Behind the data: PAPrepLive crunches the numbers on who’s winning PIAA titles
In May 2011, the PIAA’s Board of Control introduced a plan to amend its constitution by differentiating schools not as “public” and “private” but as “boundary” and “non-boundary” (page 13 of this pdf). Boundary schools comprised all public schools, drawing enrollment from within a set geographical district. Non-boundary schools were everything else, including private and charter schools. The scheme was rejected in March 2012, but it provides a useful guideline in delineating achievement. The case against definitions then included a document presented to the legislative oversight committee of the General Assembly that quantitatively minimized the issue (page 49 of this pdf). From 1972, the first year the PIAA admitted private schools, through the 2009-10 academic year, private schools had won 18.3 percent of some 1,400 PIAA titles awarded in 23 sports. That share was less than the reported 19.7 percent of the PIAA’s membership that private schools constituted.
Much has changed in five years. Using the original document’s format, PAPrepLive performed an analysis of the non-boundary schools’ performance since the 2008-09 season, the first in which the Philadelphia Catholic League was eligible to compete for state titles.
Through the 2016-17 academic year, non-boundary schools have claimed 188 of 547 team titles in 24 sports. That’s a share of 34.4 percent. Non-boundary schools comprise just 24.2 percent of the PIAA’s 766 member high schools for the 2016-17 season, per the PIAA’s directory.
The disparity is even more glaring when charter schools are excluded. The PIAA counts 40 charter high schools in its membership this year, a relatively nascent population. Charter schools have accounted for just eight championships, all but one in boys basketball.
Excluding those titles lowers the total for private schools to 180 championships or 32.9 percent of the PIAA crowns. The PIAA includes 145 private school members, 18.9 percent. That means private schools are taking home championships at a rate nearly twice their population share.
Most telling about the issue of perception is where these championships are being won.
Present the quandary of private-school success to many administrators, and they’ll tell you it centers on three sports — football and boys and girls basketball, regarded at the college levels “revenue sports.” That assessment stems from a kernel of truth: Over the last nine installments of the PIAA basketball championships, non-boundary schools have claimed 47 of 76 titles (61.8 percent). In football, the percentage is a more modest 52.6 percent (20 of 38), though it appears to be accelerating with four of six titles won by non-boundary schools in the first instance of an expanded finals calendar last fall.
But the disproportionality is by no means constrained to those three sports. In 17 of 24 sports surveyed, non-boundary schools carted away gold medals at a rate greater than their share of PIAA membership.
Country club sports such as boys and girls golf (42.9 and 50 percent, respectively) are among those where non-boundary schools punch most vigorously above their weight. Among team sports, baseball (29.0 percent), field hockey (31.6) and boys (32.1) and girls soccer (30.8) see a large proportion of trophies hauled away by non-boundary teams. Considering that these titles are almost entirely won by private — not charter — schools, the outperformance is more pronounced.
Seven of the last 12 state champions in girls cross country hail from the non-boundary set. In this millennium, only two PIAA Class 2A (smaller classification) girls swimming team titles have been claimed by a boundary school, Hershey … which has since been elevated to Class 3A. Even wrestling, once thought of as the purview of large rural schools, has seen Bethlehem Catholic evolve into a powerhouse that has claimed five duals titles.
The increase in championships for the 2016-17 campaign seems to exacerbate the disparity, albeit over a small sample. Fifteen of 33 championships (45.5 percent) bestowed in the fall went to non-boundary schools, including eight of 23 in team sports (34.8 percent) from tournaments where non-boundary schools comprised just 23.1 percent of entrants. Or, if you’d prefer the head-to-head illustration in those six team sports, non-boundary schools won 72 of 118 games against their boundary counterparts in the fall, a winning percentage of .610.
“A lot of public school coaches feel like cannon fodder for private schools,” longtime Manheim Township football coach Mike Williams told Lancaster Online just last December (Williams coached in District 3, which includes just six non-boundary schools among 92 football programs, but since 2000, those schools have won 23 of 70 district titles). “I’m not saying anything bad about private schools. This is about giving public schools a chance at something wonderful — a state championship.”
The conundrum is decidedly more pronounced, as girls swimming and volleyball illustrates, at the smaller classifications, where small enrollments and large catchment areas add up to selectivity. Hypercompetitive leagues like the Catholic League further muddle the picture: When regular-season prestige is defined by a conference title contested among schools spanning three or four classes, descending to the postseason against like-sized opposition can turn those games into laughers.
Using southeastern Pennsylvania as a microcosm, the Catholic League’s dominance is blatant. Since joining the PIAA, 10 Catholic League schools have won state titles out of a membership when, adjusted for single-sex education, adds up to 13.5 members (11 coed schools, four all boys, three all girls). That means that 74.1 percent of the league’s schools have won a state team title. That rate far outstrips any other league within its overlapping geographic area over the same period: The Central League (8 of 12, 66.7 percent); Suburban One (14 of 24, 58.3); Ches-Mont (7 of 14, 50); Del Val (2 of 5.5, 36.4); and the Pioneer Athletic Conference (4 of 12, 33). Ironically, one title for each the Ches-Mont and Pac-10 were won by non-boundary schools, Bishop Shanahan and Pope John Paul II, respectively.
“This hurts kids,” said Pat Ratesic, the former chairman of District 7 in suburban Pittsburgh. “And when you have schools, like in our area Clairton and Jeannette that have come on hard times, that’s they only thing these small towns have. They have football and basketball teams that people can go see and feel good about themselves. And it’s going by the wayside because they’re not able to compete.”
And then there’s volleyball, where recent history had dictated that the only way a public school can win is to amass the numbers to get into Class 4A, the domain of mega-schools like Parkland. Yet even there, as recently as 2009, two non-boundary schools — Bishop Shanahan and Allentown Central Catholic — jousted for the title.
Looking back at her first finals loss at Fort LeBoeuf, against Delone Catholic in 2013, Johnson recalled a parent offering her consolation in the aftermath of a grueling five-set roller coaster. With silver medal in hand, the parent bestowed on Johnson another well-meaning honorific that she hadn’t considered: “Hey, at least you’re the best public school in the state.”
In the moment, it wasn’t the caveat that Johnson sought, her team having been a few points away from removing any qualifiers on their accolade. She appreciated the consoling sentiment, but in time she’s also come to understand the designation isn’t just a pat on the back in a tough moment.
“I think it’s absolutely something you carry with pride,” she said. “… At first, it never crossed my mind as anything other than a parent consoling at a moment when I was down. And I laughed at it. … But I do think that’s an accurate statement.”
Coming Tuesday: How the enduring conundrum of competitive balance in high school athletics has been handled in the past, and what those efforts portend for the hope of change in the future. Read it early on PaPrepLive.com late Monday.