Tiny Pa. school may play as football independent if PIAA again forces it to move up

CHRIS HARLAN
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
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Forcing the Aliquippa football team to play schools two, three or four times its size isn't safe or fair, regardless of whether the Quips are winning those games, says the school's top administrator.

Aliquippa will compete next weekend in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Class 4-A football championship for the second year in a row, a remarkable feat for a small school with a Class 1-A enrollment. Yet, if the Quips were to keep winning this fall and reach the state finals, they could be forced to 5-A next season, a possibility superintendent Phillip Woods said he wouldn't accept.

If the PIAA tried to bump the team up another classification, the Quips might consider leaving WPIAL football.

"If they try to move us to 5-A, I'm going on record to say I would petition the (school) board that we play an independent schedule," Woods said. "I wouldn't feel right putting my children in the situation where they're going to receive harm."

Aliquippa would need to win two more games, including the WPIAL final Saturday, before a promotion to 5-A becomes a risk under the PIAA competitive-balance rule. Leaving WPIAL and PIAA football would be a monumental move for a program that owns the most titles in league history, so Woods is hopeful that dilemma can be avoided should the team reach Hershey.

But Quips coach Mike Warfield said he supports the superintendent's strong stance.

"There's no other team in the country that's being forced to play up three classifications," Warfield said. "You wouldn't have a 120-pound wrestler wrestling a 180-pound kid. You wouldn't do that. But everybody loses focus on what's really occurring because we win."

Warfield has insisted for months that playing in Class 4-A is unfair.

The enrollment numbers: Aliquippa qualified for the WPIAL finals for the 14th consecutive year by defeating McKeesport, 27-21, Friday night in a semifinal that lasted two overtimes. No. 2 seed Aliquippa plays No. 1 Belle Vernon in the finals Saturday at Heinz Field. While the Quips (10-1) are often leading on the scoreboard in Class 4-A games, they're dominated every week in terms of enrollment numbers.

The PIAA figures for this current two-year cycle list Aliquippa with 117 boys in grades 9-11, the years used to determine classifications. McKeesport had 353 boys. The top enrollment number for Class 4-A football is 398 boys. That number increases to 582 in Class 5-A.

"It's like Pitt playing Cal U, or Pitt playing Slippery Rock," Warfield said. "Would that be fair? No. But it's overlooked because we win."

Competitive-balance rule: The PIAA is in the middle of realignment for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, a process by which teams are rearranged into groups based on enrollment size. Regardless of what happens on the field this fall, Aliquippa won't drop below Class 4-A unless the PIAA amends its competitive-balance rule.

The PIAA rule involuntarily promotes schools that experience postseason success while also adding three or more transfers over a two-year period.

Bob Lombardi

Woods said he recently contacted PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi to express Aliquippa's objections. Whether the PIAA moves the Quips to Class 5-A or keeps them in 4-A, Aliquippa intends to appeal and take its case before the PIAA board.

"I think it needs to be brought to light that this system does not take into account the safety of the kids," said Woods, who became superintendent at his alma mater in July. "You have a defensive lineman that might get 25 snaps for a 4-A school. But our kids, because they've got to play both ways, are getting double or sometimes triple that amount of snaps. So, we're putting them at risk for injury."

Rule tweak won't help Aliquippa: The PIAA in October made a tweak to the competitive-balance rule, making it a little easier for teams already forced into a higher classification to eventually drop back down. If a PIAA-promoted team finishes a two-year cycle without accumulating any "success points," that team can drop one classification.

However, that rule change won't help Aliquippa since the Quips already have at least four success points for reaching the WPIAL finals two seasons in a row.

The primary complaint from Aliquippa's side is that the Quips already were voluntarily playing up to Class 3-A when the rule took effect. According to the way the PIAA rule is written, teams are moved up from their current competition level, not from the classification that matches their true enrollment.

So, Aliquippa was forced from 3-A to 4-A.

The Quips aren't asking to return to Class 1-A, but insist that should be the class from which they're force up.

"We recognize that we're going to get the success points and have (at least three) transfers according to their formula," Woods said. "But what we're saying is, when you bump teams up, do it from our enrollment classification of (Class 1-A)."

Rule may have more impact on transient populations: But Woods also has concerns with the rule overall. He worries that transfer element impacts communities with transient populations more severely because a school like Aliquippa might have more transfers in general.

"In a low-income neighborhood, you've got to go where the money goes," Woods said. "You could be renting a house, and now you've got to move to another house."

Lombardi says rule working as intended: In October, Lombardi was asked about Aliquippa's situation as a Class 1-A school forced to play in 4-A. Lombardi noted that the rule appeared to be working as intended.

"They're winning," Lombardi said. "If they weren't successful, it wouldn't be an issue. But they're winning, so they're probably right where they belong."

Woods took exception with that PIAA position.

"This," he said, "isn't about wins and losses."