Simmering public-private dispute leads to unprecedented student protest at Pa. track meet

The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)

The always-contentious public vs. private debate usually sticks to high school football and basketball, but a track meet became the backdrop for an unprecedented student protest.

Athletes from Carlynton and Bishop Canevin compete on the same track team through a co-op, but a number of Canevin boys decided not to join their public school teammates Wednesday for the section finale. Instead, they gathered in protest with Canevin football coach Rich Johnson and some of their football teammates on a hill overlooking the track.

The protest came in the wake of a football player transferring from Carlynton to Bishop Canevin. Carlynton contested Najeh Austin's move as athletically motivated and the WPIAL ruled him ineligible.

"All we wanted to do was say we feel we are being targeted," Johnson said. "When you attack us and you personally come after kids and you brag about kids being ineligible for the upcoming season, we have an issue with that."

Johnson said he notified Canevin about the football team's plans and got approval, as long as they weren't disruptive.

"I ran it through the administration right before the track meet," Johnson said. "They were OK with it as long as we did it the way that we did it — kind of stand for our school and represent our school."

The protest came as Carlynton was trying to win the first boys section track title in school history. The Cougars were missing about 10 or 15 Canevin boys, but defeated McGuffey, 70-69, to win a share of the title.

"Long story short, we still won the section championship without those kids," said Carlynton athletic director Nate Milsom, who has coached the track team for 17 years. "I sent Canevin's AD a text that said: 'That's classless.' I've never witnessed anything like that in my life."

Canevin athletic director Dale Checketts couldn't be reached for comment.

No longer part of the team: Milsom decided the Canevin athletes who chose to protest rather than compete are no longer part of the track team. They won't compete with Carlynton in the WPIAL team championship May 11 and won't accompany the Cougars to the WPIAL individual championships May 18-19.

It's likely the Canevin athletes who've already qualified for the WPIAL individual meet will still compete, but not in a Carlynton uniform.

"Every one of the protesters needs to turn their uniforms in tomorrow," Milsom said.

The Canevin athletes who competed Wednesday will remain on the team.

The two schools have formed combined teams in a number of other sports over the years including tennis, swimming and wrestling. Bishop Canevin's campus is only about four miles away.

Places blame on football coach: Milsom said there were no issues all season, but he first knew something was amiss when his athletes gathered Wednesday afternoon for a team photo. He noticed some Canevin boys were missing.

"The next thing you know, Canevin's football coach and about 25 of their players are marching across the top and all stood on the hillside," Milsom said. "I didn't even acknowledge them. I'm not playing into that."

Milsom said he placed blame more on Johnson than the athletes.

"This is coming from a grown man, taking and denying these kids an opportunity to compete," Milsom said. "We're talking about kids, and one man trying to be the puppet master."

Animosity ratcheting up: Animosity between public and private schools has ratcheted up in recent months, with many public school administrators renewing their call for separate playoffs.

Milsom, who was recently elected to the WPIAL board, has joined that fight. He has argued that traditional public schools like his face a competitive disadvantage against non-boundary schools like Canevin, which won WPIAL titles in football, boys basketball and girls basketball this school year.

The Bishop Canevin football team went 13-2 and won the WPIAL Class A title last year in Johnson's second season as coach. The Crusaders' season included a 50-0 win over Carlynton.

Dramatic turnaround: Johnson and his assistant coaches have overseen a dramatic turnaround for a program that went 1-9 in 2019, but they've also heard questions about recruiting — including from Milsom.

"All we keep hearing is, 'How do you go from 1-9 to mercy ruling in the WPIAL championship game?'" Johnson said. "We put in a lot of work behind the scenes. Our coaches spend a lot of time inside the school."

Johnson said he wonders why public school opponents aren't complaining about Carlynton's success this spring in track. A number of Canevin's athletes have contributed to the success. Among them, junior Lesae Lacks has one of the season's best triple jump distance in WPIAL Class 2A.

"Why is noise not getting made when they're winning with a Canevin co-op?" Johnson said. "So much noise is being made when I'm winning with the same kids who are flooding your track team."