HEISER: Class confrontation may be brewing over Pennsylvania high school football playoffs

  • There's a movement to reduce the PIAA football playoffs from six classes to four classes.
  • Most of the support for the reduction seems to be coming from the Pittsburgh and Philly regions.
  • The PIAA has used a six-class football playoff format since the 2016 season.

There may be a class war brewing in Pennsylvania high school football.

York Catholic quarterback Mitchell Galentine is facemasked by Southern Columbia's Payton Pursel in a PIAA Class 2-A quarterfinal football game in Shamokin, on Saturday, Nov. 24. The PIAA football playoffs currently feature a six-class format. Some folks would like to see that change. John A. Pavoncello photo

It looks as if the two 800-pound gorillas in the room — namely the population behemoths in the Pittsburgh and Philadephia areas — aren’t especially happy with the six-class PIAA format that has been used since the 2016 season.

There appears to be a growing sentiment in those parts of the state to return to the four-class format that was used from 1988 through 2015.

It’s hard to imagine the schools from the rest of the state — basically the “T” portion of Pennsylvania — having much interest in returning to fewer classes. Fewer classes will translate into fewer champions. It’s unlikely there’s much appetite, outside of the Pittsburgh and Philly areas, for a 33 percent reduction in championship opportunities.

That "T" would naturally include the York-Adams League and its District 3 neighbors. The powers that be in this region appear relatively happy with the current format.

Possible “Superclass:” The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, meanwhile, might be headed in the opposite direction. The state’s governing body of high school sports is mulling the creation of a seventh class, or "Superclass," in basketball and football in the next two-year enrollment cycle.

PIAA mulls 'Superclass' for next two-year cycle

Teams would play in the “Superclass” based on a success formula or if they wanted to play up from their enrollment class. The idea was recommended by the PIAA competition committee.

It could set up a fascinating class confrontation, especially considering the growing statewide movement to separate boundary (public) and nonboundary (private and charter) schools for playoff purposes. Many in the public-school camp strongly believe (and rightfully so) that nonboundary schools have an unfair advantage come playoff time.

PIAA stands behind Act 219, passed in 1972

The possibility of a “Superclass” is likely the PIAA’s response to alleviate those concerns. The PIAA has long held that separate playoffs are prohibited under state law.

Back to four classes? According to a report by Chris Harlan of the (Greensburg) Tribune Review, the move to return to four classes was broached at a recent PIAA board meeting, when suburban Philadelphia representatives suggested reverting to four football classes.

Harlan’s report, based on a statement by Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association president Scott Seltzer, said the PIAA competition committee will discuss the issue at its next meeting.

The WPIAL (also known as District 7) also appears to favor the class reduction. That should come as a no big surprise. When the PIAA moved to six classes, the WPIAL was not especially happy. The class expansion ruined the WPIAL’s much-beloved championship weekend at Heinz Field, when all four WPIAL title games were played at the NFL home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The facility couldn’t logistically host six WPIAL title games, so two games were shipped off to Robert Morris University. That upset a lot of folks in the western part of the state.

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WPIAL cites blowouts, loss of rivalries: Now, the WPIAL, according to Harlan’s report, might push for a return to four classes.

“Six classifications (aren’t) working in the sport of football, specifically,” executive director Tim O’Malley told the WPIAL board this week.

“… The reasons it’s not working are, No. 1, there are more blowouts than we ever had before. There’s a tremendous amount of lost interest; nobody goes and watches. And there are no more rivalries. The people that are beating you mercilessly are from a different county. But we predicted this four years ago.”

According to Harlan’s report, the WPIAL will make the move to four classes only if a majority of WPIAL schools request the switch, and it would only affect football.

“We can fix this, if the schools are willing to go that route,” O’Malley said.

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Possible hybrid system: If the WPIAL moved to four classes for the District 7 playoffs, it wouldn’t necessarily prevent the western Pennsylvania teams from competing in the PIAA postseason.

Harlan reported that, “when the WPIAL surveyed schools in 2015, a majority favored following the PIAA’s lead and expanding football to six classes. The alternative the WPIAL pitched then was a hybrid system that would’ve maintained four classes locally and used a points system to determine the six PIAA qualifiers.”

Such a hybrid system could theoretically still be used.

Four Y-A football players awarded by Maxwell

More or less? So, which will it be, more classes, fewer classes or the status quo?

Well, until at least the 2020 season, the status quo will almost certainly prevail. The PIAA enrollment cycle is set through 2019.

After that, however, it appears all bets are off.

The  stakeholders from the different regions of the state seemingly have conflicting viewpoints that won’t be easily reconciled.

The classification decision also will have to be made against the backdrop of the boundary-nonboundary debate that hangs over the PIAA like a looming storm. The two items likely can’t be separated.

It’s turned Pennsylvania scholastic sports into an ongoing soap opera, with the final episode nowhere in sight.

— Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.