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Suburban One League has to find a reason for its hoops tournament

The Suburban One League Tournament has had some problems since it started seven years ago.

In the inaugural season in 2015, the Plymouth Whitemarsh boys opted out of the tournament to stay healthy and avoid playing teams they might see in the District 1 playoffs.

The problem reared its head again this week. The Pennsbury girls basketball team rested most of its regulars, some of which were battling injuries, Tuesday night and lost the championship game to Plymouth Whitemarsh, 52-15.

“Does this give us a district title if we win tonight?” Pennsbury coach Frank Sciolla asked after the game. “Does this give us the state title? Who won this tournament two years ago?”

Sciolla’s comment raises the question – what’s the purpose of the SOL Tournament?

“Originally the goal was to follow the Central League in enabling a few of our teams to get extra games,” Suburban One League Executive Secretary and Council Rock South Assistant Principal Buff Radick said Wednesday. “That was the original goal, seven-eight years ago. PIAA cut games from 24 to 22… (The Central League) said, ‘We’re doing a postseason tournament for our top four teams and it gets us two extra games. PIAA said it doesn’t count towards the 22.’ We thought it sounds like a great idea. We weren’t thinking at the time to remove the division championships and make this the culminating event. We were really looking at grabbing a couple extra games for as many teams as we could and at the time it was four. Then we changed it to eight within the past year.

“If you look at the other years, we’ve had teams that are more than willing to compete. I’ve seen teams very excited about winning the championship. If you look at Abington’s men’s teams that won a few years in a row with (Eric) Dixon and that group. I mean, they went full steam ahead. I wouldn’t say that (the tournament) hasn’t caught on. I’d say that we had a glitch here and there, last night being one of them, but I wouldn’t say that it hasn’t caught on.”

The Plymouth Whitemarsh girls and Cheltenham boys both improved to 25-0 by winning their SOL Tournaments Tuesday night. Both teams have fully earned the right to call themselves champions, but the trophies don’t feel as meaningful as they could be.

For the SOL Tournament to be at its best, the top teams need to play and they need to want to win.

Looking at neighboring leagues, the Philadelphia Catholic League and Pioneer Athletic Conference playoffs are highlights of the season, not just motions the top teams need to go through before competing for district championships.

The 2016-17 Archbishop Wood boys basketball team was voted the Reporter/Times Herald/Montgomery Media Boys Basketball Team of the Decade in 2020. The Vikings went 28-3 that season and won the PCL, District 12 and state championships. Matt Cerruti and Keith Otto, a pair of 2017 grads, agreed that the Catholic League championship was the highlight of their high school careers.

Rahsool Diggins, a 2021 Wood grad, led the Vikings to three District 12 championships, two state title games and one PCL title. The two-time league MVP listed the Catholic League championship as the accomplishment he’s most-proud of.

In the PAC, the Methacton boys won their fourth title in five years Tuesday night. Seniors Brett Byrne and Cole Hargove mostly watched as freshmen in 2019 and played supporting roles as sophomores in 2020 when the Warriors won PAC championships. The two combined for 40 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, to help put away Pope John Paul II, 55-42, Tuesday.

The PAC Liberty champs weren’t resting starters to avoid injury or trying to keep 32 minutes of film away from opponents heading into the District 1-6A playoffs, in which they’re the No. 1 seed.

Why do these leagues put an emphasis on their playoffs while the SOL doesn’t?

It’s simple. These leagues use the postseason tournament to determine the league champion.

The Catholic League regular season decides postseason seeding and influences District 12 qualifiers. The playoffs determine who raises a championship plaque at the Palestra.

The PAC is similar to the SOL in that it has divisions. In both leagues, the regular season determines division champions and which teams qualify for the playoffs. The difference is the PAC sees winning the six-team playoff as the league’s ultimate prize. SOL teams view their four division titles as what’s worth striving for before districts.

“Those other leagues,” Radick said, “I don’t believe they have a regular season champion, so to speak, like we do. Those tournaments actually crown the champion of their league, which certainly forces you to have more juice in the tournament, there’s no question about that. That’s an option – that’s something that we can discuss internally as a league, but where we stand right now we’re on division champions with everybody that wins their division gets awarded their trophies and medals for their players. We’re not in that same position as those other leagues regarding that.

“Based on last night we might discuss (crowning a champion after the league tournament) again, but with 24 schools I just don’t know if we’re going to get consensus. When you’re talking about smaller divisions in a league with four divisions – some of ours are smaller – I think some of those schools might not think that they’ll ever have a chance to win a championship if we move away from our divisions that we have now. In those other leagues that we mentioned, it’s different, fewer schools. It’s certainly something that we can and will discuss.”

If teams aren’t competing for a league title in the tournament, what can happen to keep the level of play as high as possible?

One option – teams don’t have to play. The league strongly encourages every team that qualifies to fully participate, but the tournament is not required for teams who don’t want extra games before districts.

Another option would be changing the postgame celebration. PW girls coach Dan Dougherty said he gets 10-page scripts at holiday tournaments explaining the postgame procedures compared to the zero direction he and the announcer received Tuesday.

When the final buzzer sounded on the Colonials 52-15 win Tuesday, the teams shook hands and Pennsbury headed straight to the locker room. Dougherty thought most of the gym was leaving during the trophy exchange and couldn’t even hear the announcer. Neither the girls or boys games had much pageantry, with the winners receiving the trophy and t-shirts before posing for a couple pictures.

“If that’s how they’re going to treat the championship,” Dougherty said, “how do you expect people to take it seriously if that’s the thought and that’s the mindset?”

How do the PCL and PAC handle the postgame for their championship games? The winners receive a plaque before climbing ladders to cut down the nets.

That won’t happen at the SOL Tournament final since it’s not a culminating championship.

“In our postseason tournament there are not individual medals awarded for champions,” Radick, who went to the girls game Tuesday and handed out the trophy, said. “This isn’t something that was new this year, this is what we’ve done since we started. We have a team trophy for the boys and a team trophy for the girls.

“Our four girls division and our four boys division teams are cutting down the nets when they win the division. That’s their championship. It’s different. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be an award ceremony, but I don’t think you can compare it to the others because it’s a different setup.”

Finally, the Cheltenham boys and Pennsbury girls both mentioned playing seven games in nine days while PW girls referenced playing six games in eight days Tuesday night. All four teams that played Tuesday night have first-round byes in the District 1-6A playoffs, so the league could have made adjustments to the championship to spread out games across the 12-day break between the end of the regular season and their first district games.  

“What we could have done and this is difficult to plan out prior to a tournament, and we’d need to be flexible,” Rabick said, “knowing that all four teams last night have a bye this week, maybe in the future we move the championship game to Wednesday night. This way you would have games on Saturday – the quarterfinals, the semifinals on Monday night and the finals on Wednesday night.”

The talent in the Suburban One League is undeniable. If the top eight teams are incentivized to win, the SOL Tournament can be one of the best league tournaments around.

“I don’t want to overreact on the situation (Tuesday) night,” Radick said. “You’re always going to have glitches. It wasn’t good, but we’ve had excitement throughout the years. We just have to do a better job of making sure our teams are going to compete when we get to that level. That’s something that all of our AD’s and principals are going to have to help with.”

Contact Ed Morlock at emorlock@21st-centurymedia.com; follow him on Twitter @emor09

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