Despite protests, PIAA boss says competitive-balance rule working as intended

CHRIS HARLAN
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
Bob Lombardi

HERSHEY — The state's competitive-balance rule is working as originally intended, despite the strong objections of a small western Pennsylvania football program to playing bigger schools, says the PIAA's top administrator.

"In my opinion, they (Aliquippa) have no legitimate complaint," PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said, "as seen by this year winning a state championship and last year losing to the ultimate state champion (Thomas Jefferson) in overtime. It's pretty difficult (to agree with Aliquippa) when you look at five kids of 300 pounds or more and over 6-foot-4.

"There's no single-A school that has that."

Aliquippa is a small school with a Class 1-A enrollment, but the Quips celebrated as unwilling state Class 4-A champions Friday because of a PIAA rule that measures postseason success and transfers added. In its second year as a 4-A team, Aliquippa defeated Bishop McDevitt, 34-27, on Friday behind an offensive line that averages 300 pounds. A year ago, the Quips lost to Thomas Jefferson in the District 7 final.

As a result, Aliquippa's reward is a pending promotion to Class 5-A next season, a move the school's administration has promised to fight. Quips coach Mike Warfield has argued for months that playing schools with more kids and teams with larger rosters is both unfair and unsafe for his players.

But the scores on Friday nights say the rule is working, Lombardi said. Aliquippa finished the season 13-1, losing only to eventual PIAA Class 3-A champion Central Valley.

"You have to look at what happens on the field," Lombardi said. "I know they don't like it, but the simple fact is they've proven success at the levels they've participated in. They should move up."

Aliquippa's main argument: Aliquippa's main argument is that the football team already was voluntarily playing up two classifications to 3-A before the rule took effect. The competitive-balance rule was written in a way to promote teams up from their current competition level, not from their true enrollment classification.

Aliquippa wants that part of the rule to be rewritten, but the PIAA has had no discussions about doing so.

"Not at this time," Lombardi said. "None."

Dunmore, a Lackawanna County school district, unsuccessfully challenged the rule in court last winter, which bolstered the PIAA's position.

"We got a 41-page opinion that not only is it fair, but it's consistent," Lombardi said. "It's the same across the board."

Changes possible: But while the rule isn't going away, the PIAA has discussed changing parts, potentially making it impact more teams.

There are also ongoing discussions about expanding the rule to include team sports other than football and basketball. The PIAA at this month's board meeting provided its 12 districts information showing how the rule would impact those other sports. After research, Lombardi said, the PIAA found there wouldn't be much impact on those other sports.

So, it's unclear whether the rule will expand.

Separately, there is talk about potentially making promotions based solely on success points alone. That would impact a football team such as Southern Columbia, which won its fifth consecutive PIAA Class 2-A title on Friday. Southern Columbia avoided promotion to Class 3-A two years ago by proving it didn't have three or more transfers, the threshold written into the rule.

The PIAA also has discussed reducing the success-point threshold to a number less than six.

"There might be some tweaks, but probably not for this cycle," said Lombardi, meaning the changes wouldn't take effect until the 2024-25 school year, at the earliest.

Rule adopted in 2018: The competitive-balance rule was approved by the PIAA board in 2018. The first teams were promoted before the 2020 football season.

"Any rule that's new, people always have a better way," Lombardi said. "But I will tell you this has worked out. It has done what it's supposed to."

As currently written, the rule targets football teams that both accumulate six "success points" and add three or more transfers in a two-year cycle. Teams that reach the state finals are awarded four success points. Semifinalists receive three, quarterfinalists two and first-round participants get one.

Appeals process: The PIAA has an appeals process, but to succeed, a football team likely must prove it didn't add three or more transfers in the past two seasons. Warfield has said Aliquippa had five, but pointed out there was no competitive advantage gained since none played in the postseason.

"I don't want to hear anything about transfers," Warfield said Friday, "because no transfers played tonight. No transfer has played in the playoffs. I don't want to hear anything about transfers."

There are multiple levels of appeal. The first is an appeal to the PIAA executive staff. If that fails, a school can request an appeal before the PIAA board.

Along with Aliquippa, seven other football teams accumulated enough success points to face promotion: Bishop Guilfoyle and Redbank Valley in Class 1-A, Southern Columbia in 2-A, Central Valley and Wyomissing in 3-A, Jersey Shore in 4-A and Cathedral Prep in 5-A.

The rule won't impact Central Valley because the Warriors already were moving to 4A next season based on new enrollment numbers. The fate of the others will depend on whether they added three or more transfers.

Lombardi encouraged unhappy schools to appeal.

"Before you go off the rails," he said, "go through the process."