A new dynamic as Downingtown East and North Penn square off Friday


There was a time when a Downingtown and North Penn playing in the regular season would strike debate over who had the better shot to win a state title.

While Downingtown East hosts North Penn tonight at Kottymeyer Stadium, District 1 power is at stake, but whether either could challenge for a state championship almost feels more like a long-shot than a possibility these days.

Times have changed in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and though the big names in District 1 remain generally the same, the emergence of District 12 has completely altered the PIAA landscape.

Outside the Philadelphia region, private schools have had success, with Allentown Central Catholic in the Lehigh Valley and Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Erie Cathedral Prep out west. But with the PIAA allowing the Philadelphia Catholic League of District 12 to join in 2008 the playing field has shifted and some area coaches are not pleased with it.

“It’s changed dramatically because the PIAA doesn’t have a strong standard with the recruiting piece,” Coatesville coach Matt Ortega said. “There is very blatant recruiting going on. Teams are sending guys to little league games and the PIAA doesn’t have a handle on it. It’s only gonna get worse. We’re a public school team and we have to worry about winning the Ches-Mont and District 1. When we beat La Salle (in the 2012 state semifinal) I said it would be a long time until another team from the East gets back with how blatant recruiting is.”

Where there is competition there will be toeing the line, straddling the line and by all means, crossing the line, in terms of following the rules. The transfer rule, where recruiting often comes in, is one of the blurriest lines to navigate.

To be fair, there have been countless stories of star athletes with “PO box addresses” to play for a neighboring public school team, or coaches housing athletes to keep them eligible. But talk of private schools hosting offseason football camps to bring in top players from all over or having players talk to other players about transferring somewhere else creates a greater divide between public and private. It also makes things very hard to prove with hard evidence and causes administrators to want to turn their heads and not get involved.

“It’s a failure by the PIAA to enforce the rules,” Downingtown West coach Mike Milano said. “They came in and told everyone the recruiting rules would be enforced and they have not been. That’s the deal. These schools are focusing on football and they have free reign to get kids anywhere.”

The PIAA’s playoff system began in 1988 and for many years it was the mega school from the East against the mega school from the West in Class AAAA. District 1’s heyday was in the 90’s, with Central Bucks West winning four titles and Downingtown winning one and reaching another. In the first decade of the 2000’s, North Penn and Neshaminy each earned a crown, with North Penn’s in 2003 as the last from the district.

Since District 12 joined the PIAA in 2008, three of its teams have won championships, the last two going to St. Joseph’s Prep. District 7, with the Pittsburgh schools, won 10 of the first 20 4A titles, but have only won two in the seven years District 12 has been in the picture.

Milano said he fights the concept of considering a District 1 title the ultimate goal with the potential of dealing with the District 12 champ the following week of the state playoffs.

“We work hard to try to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Milano said. “I talked to Garnet Valley coach Mike Ricci the other year and his team went to the Class AAA title game (in 2007), and we talked about how cool it was to go to Hershey and have the whole town watching. With these super teams you’re never gonna see that again. People complain about attendance dropping in Hershey, but they’re not town schools.”

While the principle irks coaches, the reality has yet to impact Ches-Mont schools, at least on the field. To even get a chance to play a District 12 team in the playoffs, a Ches-Mont school would have to win District 1 to face the winner of the Northeast Regional champ and District 12’s top team.

Only three Ches-Mont teams have won District 1 in 4A, Downingtown in 1994 and 1996, and Coatesville in 2012. That Coatesville team knocked off District 12’s La Salle College on its way to Hershey.

“To me, I don’t worry about District 12,” Downingtown East coach Mike Matta said. “We wouldn’t see them until the state semifinal, so we don’t focus on what they do. Not to disrespect the immense talent they have, but that’s a different ball game. The top dogs around here, it’s always North Penn and one other Suburban One team, and then it’s Coatesville and Downingtown West. Those are the top dogs in District 1, so we don’t even think about District 12.”

“It’s not even high school football teams as I look at it,” Matta added. “They’re all-star teams.”

Coatesville won its first 13 games last season before falling to Pennsbury, 21-14, in the District final. A week later, Pennsbury was trounced by St. Joe’s Prep, 37-7. The Prep was led by Jon Runyan Jr., son of the former Philadelphia Eagles’ lineman and a member of the House of Representatives from New Jersey until this past winter.

Talent has flocked to the Prep and La Salle and other private schools in Philly, and it’s not just in 4A, as Great Valley found out last season. Archbishop Wood has won three Class AAA titles since 2008 and was runner-up two other times. Wood also smashed the Patriots a week after they won the 3A District 1 title.

“It definitely changed the dynamics because I think right now there are two sets of schools with two different sets of rules,” Great Valley coach Dan Ellis said. “I’m not trying to complain about recruiting, because that’s what those schools have to do to get enrollment, but you have teams like Archbishop Wood, St. Joe’s Prep and even Bishop Shanahan, that don’t have equal fields. Some of those schools are pulling from three different states and we’re pulling kids from Malvern.”

Shanahan doesn’t get the same attention as St. Joe’s Prep or La Salle do, but as Ellis mentioned, the private-public angst is still there to some degree. Shanahan, like most private schools, has to market itself to attract enrollment. Sports are always a part of that, and the private schools do give student-athletes the chance at a new opportunity, as well as potentially better chances to start.

Transferring for athletic purposes is not allowed, per the PIAA, but it’s easy enough to disguise any move as an academic one.

While Milano did not imply the Shanahan staff acting unethically, he has still felt the impact of having a private alternative in his own back yard.

“Shanahan can do what they want and administration is reluctant to fight cases,” Milano said. “We lost a middle school kid to St. Joe’s Prep, but we don’t lose many there. Shanahan affects us the most. We have second team kids, and kids who can still play, and they’re approached by kids about playing there. I’ve had parents point blank tell me their kids are transferring for sports reasons.”

“When you have to recruit your own kids, that’s not good.”

The public-private debate will likely only get hotter, especially as the PIAA talks about expanding to six classes. In a dog-eat-dog world, coaches will have more and more character decisions to make. But as one former public head coach, now private school assistant once told Milano about his switch…

“Might as well join, you’re not going to beat them.”

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