In sometimes contentious meeting, Pa. prep football power wins PIAA appeal, will stay in 4-A

The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
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Add another win to Aliquippa's record.

The PIAA board heard Aliquippa's appeal Wednesday and voted to grant the school's request, meaning the Quips can remain in Class 4-A football for the next two seasons. The small-school team was facing a promotion to 5-A under the PIAA competitive-balance rule, despite having a Class A enrollment.

The board voted 21-4 in Aliquippa's favor.

The online hearing was contentious at times and lasted more than 90 minutes, twice as long as the PIAA had initially allotted. Along with Aliquippa superintendent Phillip Woods and principal Stacey Alexander, the PIAA board heard from football coach Mike Warfield, retired NFL player Ty Law, team physician Dr. Stephen Hribar and athletic trainer Mike McGarvey.

"Yes, we do have a lot of talent there ... but if you look at the pure numbers, we're an anomaly," said Law, a 1992 Aliquippa graduate and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "I don't think we should be punished for the success that we have had on the field. We're not afraid of competition. But when you're talking about a school like Aliquippa, I think it's equivalent to ... asking Geneva College to play Penn State week in and week out."

Wyomissing also wins its appeal: The PIAA board also granted an appeal requested by Wyomissing football, which had a hearing immediately after Aliquippa's. Wyomissing will remain in Class 3-A. PIAA president Frank Majikes said the board was swayed by the schools' testimony, adding that the PIAA may re-examine the rule.

"We will take that testimony and move on," Majikes said, "possibly re-evaluate and see where we're going for the future."

Attorneys representing Aliquippa argued that the rule as currently written doesn't specifically address teams such as Aliquippa that already voluntarily play in a higher classification. Aliquippa was playing up two classifications before the rule took effect four years ago, yet was bumped up again.

"I believe our board will be discussing that issue at our next meeting or future meetings," Majikes said.

Safety concerns: Those representing Aliquippa testified that forcing the the school to play football against opponents with far more students would be unsafe for the players, and they insisted the PIAA's competitive-balance formula is unfair for communities with a transient population.

The formula measures postseason success and counts transfers added over a two-year cycle. Aliquippa won the PIAA Class 4-A title this past fall, reached the WPIAL finals in 2020 and added eight transfers over the past two seasons, according to the PIAA.

Aliquippa attorneys Jay Reisinger and Tina Miller attacked the rule itself, insisting there is a discrepancy between how the rule is written in the PIAA handbook and how it's implemented. The PIAA promotes teams from the classification they previously competed in, but Reisinger argued that the rule as written references only a school's "enrollment classification."

Voluntary upgrades: Reisinger said the rule doesn't specifically address instances of voluntary upgrades, such as with Aliquippa, which already was playing up two classifications before the rule took effect in July 2018. The rule moved Aliquippa to Class 4A in 2020.

"Voluntarily increase in enrollment classification is not referred to at all in the competition formula," Reisinger said. "There's nowhere in the competition formula that says you get the competition formula applied to where you came from."

In response, Lombardi urged Reisinger to review other sections of guidelines used by the PIAA for determining enrollment classifications.

"They're not all separate by themselves," Lombardi told Reisinger. "They're all interconnected. I don't understand why you're trying to read that in such a narrow focus when they're all together."

Reisinger disagreed.

"The competition rule has not been applied properly in this case," he said.

Meeting turns contentious: The hearing turned contentious when Lombardi and PIAA attorney Alan Boynton highlighted Aliquippa's on-field success, saying the team outscored opponents by more than 400 points last season. Lombardi pointed out to Warfield that his team had multiple players on the all-state team, and freshman running back Tiqwai Hayes was the Class 4-A player of the year.

"That's not part of the formula," Warfield said.

"It sounds like almost crocodile tears, your complaining, when you're humiliating your opponents and blowing them out," said Boynton, the PIAA attorney. "Is it your position that your team would not be competitive at 5-A?"

"My position is health and safety of our kids," Warfield responded, before adding: "If that was the case, possibly, yes. ... But if we're just basing the rule on winning, or if we can win in 5-A or a higher class, that should apply to other schools."

Budget differential: Woods, the school's superintendent, provided the PIAA with a chart comparing the roster sizes and school budgets of WPIAL Class 5-A, 4-A and 3-A schools to Aliquippa's, which was by far the smallest.

Aliquippa has a $26 million district budget, said Woods, who listed Fox Chapel at $104 million and Pine-Richland at $96 million. If moved to Class 5-A, Aliquippa would've shared a conference with those teams next season. Among WPIAL Class 4A schools, Woods listed Belle Vernon smallest at $48 million.

Woods noted that Aliquippa has only one athletic trainer who works part-time.

"We're not gaining or even coming close to a competitive advantage (in Class 4-A)," Woods said. "If anything, we're being disadvantaged by being asked to compete against schools that have this amount of resource."