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After losses in PIAA finals, public-school coaches air complaints about private-school teams

MIKE WHITE
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
New Castle's Michael Graham, Imhotep Charter's Ahmad Nowell and New Castle's Jonathon Anderson, from left, go after the ball during the PIAA boys' Class 5A state basketball championship game Friday, March 25, 2022, in Hershey, Pa. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

The critics of Catholic/private/charter schools in Pennsylvania high school sports have been many in recent history.

And you can now add to the group a few public-school coaches of Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League schools in PIAA basketball championships this weekend.

Five public-school teams — three boys and two girls — from the WPIAL all lost to Philadelphia Catholic League teams this weekend and the average margin of defeat in those games was 20 points. A few coaches of the WPIAL teams weren't shy about making their feelings known about what they perceive as an uneven playing field between public and Catholic/private/charter schools — and they are calling for the PIAA to address the subject. They believe there should be separate playoffs for public schools and all other schools.

Boys' coaches Ralph Blundo of New Castle, Mike Mastroianni of Quaker Valley and Nick Lackovich of Aliquippa all lost to teams from the Philadelphia Catholic League and their teams lost by 15, 25 and 18 points.

The complaint from coaches, fans and even administrators is that public schools can take only students from within their geographical districts. Meanwhile, Catholic/private/charter schools don't have geographical boundaries and can take students from anywhere.

The subject of public vs. private/Catholic/charter schools in Pennsylvania high school sports has long been debated, but the critics seem to be growing and some coaches are speaking louder than ever about the subject.

"It needs to be re-evaluated. It does. It's just common sense," said Blundo, whose team lost to Imhotep Charter, 54-39.

The Philadelphia Catholic and Public leagues have some excellent teams and players and those two leagues have dominated the state championships in recent years. The Philadelphia leagues have won 40 championships since 2012, with most of those 40 teams coming from either Catholic or charter schools.

The Philly reputation: Over the years, the Philadelphia teams — in football and basketball — have developed a reputation of having numerous players who transfer schools. Some haven't even lived in the state of Pennsylvania. Transferring schools for athletic reasons is against PIAA rules.

This season, Imhotep featured guard Ahmad Nowell, ranked as one of the top sophomores in the country. He helped a Tennessee school win a state title last season. Neumann-Goretti had Sultan Adewale, a 6-7 senior who has scholarship offers from major colleges and attended a school in St. Louis last year. Other Philadelphia teams in the finals had players who transferred from other Philadelphia-area schools.

"This is really the only level of basketball where there's inequity," said Blundo, who has won seven WPIAL titles. "NBA teams don't play Division I college teams. Division I teams that have scholarships don't play Division III teams for championship because the circumstances are different. The ability to obtain players is different. I get all that. But you have to acknowledge and handle it because it hurts kids.

"The kids at Imhotep are not doing anything wrong. They're simply playing by a set of rules that permits it."

Bob Lombardi

Giving Lombardi an earful: After Quaker Valley lost to Neumann-Goretti, 93-68, in the Class 5-A championship Thursday night, Mastroianni talked with PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi on the court to express his displeasure about the situation. Mastroianni also is Quaker Valley's athletic director.

"As an administrator, I just think we have a responsibility," said Mastroianni, whose team was undefeated until the loss to Neumann-Goretti.

The 93 points Neumann-Goretti scored were the most against Quaker Valley since Mastroianni began a second term as the Quakers' coach in the 2007-08 season.

"I just think we should re-evaluate things," Mastroianni said of the public vs. private school debate. "I think a lot of other people do, too."

Aliquippa's Lackovich said, "It's staring everyone right in the face. You can't have guys from different areas. All of my guys are from within one mile of the school. ... That whole Philadelphia area, it's like free agency. But (the PIAA) is going to worry about Aliquippa playing 4A or 5A in football? I don't get it. Let's clean this up.

"What's the answer? Well, if you're not going to clamp down on transfers, then you should have separate championships. Let them (Catholic/private/charter schools) do their own thing. Then you'll see more balance and more fairness. That would be the first place to look."

Lombardi says complaints sound like "sour grapes:" Lombardi was well aware of the complaints from coaches this weekend, but said, "It sounds like sour grapes. I hope it's not, but I didn't hear any complaints when those teams were beating anyone on the road (to the state championships). I think some teams made a little better adjustments in the (championship) games than others, some coaching adjustments."

The Philadelphia Catholic and Public leagues have been part of the PIAA since 2008-09 and Lombardi made it clear that the PIAA has no intention of having separate playoffs, no matter the number of complaints.

"What are you going to do, separate them? That's an immediate lawsuit on discrimination and we're not going down that road," Lombardi said. "So maybe we need to work together a little bit on this. But I don't have another answer. But I hate to hear that commentary from losing teams. It's disheartening. ... Would they have the same comments if they won?"

Championship attendance: The 12 championship games over three days at Giant Center in Hershey drew a total of 16,946 fans. That is the lowest attendance for the title games since the PIAA moved from four to six classifications in the 2016-17 season. The previous low was 17,091 in 2016.

For comparisons sake, attendance for the WPIAL championships has been on the rise over the past five years. This year's 12 WPIAL games drew 24,719 fans, the best since the advent of six classifications.

But attendance has generally been on the decline at the PIAA championships for more than a decade. Gone are the days when the games would average more than 4,000 fans a game — and that was less than 20 years ago. For example, from 2004 through 2007, eight title games played over two days drew at least 30,000 fans at either Hershey's Giant Center or Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center. The attendance for the 2004 games in Hershey was 34,772 and 33,293 in 2005.

This year was the first time that the PIAA emptied the arena after every title game. In the past, games were played in doubleheaders and one ticket was good for both games. The largest crowds this year were 2,408 for the New Castle vs. Imhotep Charter game in Class 5-A boys, and 2,022 for the Mt. Lebanon vs. Plymouth Whitemarsh game in Class 6-A girls.

But Lombardi wasn't displeased at the attendance. He said it's a sign of the times.

"With the games on statewide TV (PCN), live streaming of games and gas prices as high as they are, 5,000 people a day is not too bad," Lombardi said.

Another factor in the lower attendance has been that some of the teams from the Philadelphia Catholic or Public League might bring only a few hundred fans sometimes.

"Some schools don't draw and I think the long-time basketball fan that used to come and spend two or three days at the games, we don't have that any more," Lombardi said.