Pri­vate Party

Pub­lic schools across Pa. feel­ing squeezed out by ‘non-bound­ary’ foes

The Community Connection - - SPORTS - By Matthew DeGe­orge mde­ge­orge@21st-cen­tu­ry­ @sports­doc­tormd on Twit­ter

First in a four-part se­ries

When LeAnn John­son ar­rived at Rich­land High School for the PIAA girls vol­ley­ball fi­nals in Novem­ber 2015, she knew her Fort LeBoeuf squad could be in for a tough time.

John­son has spent 11 sea­sons grow­ing the Bi­son into a fix­ture on the state vol­ley­ball scene, all from a pub­lic school in a one-stop­light bor­ough in Erie County, the north­west cor­ner of Pennsylvania that juts into the Great Lake whose name the county bears. In her decade at the helm, John­son counts one pupil stand­ing 6 feet or taller for a sport whose ac­tion is gen­er­ated well off the floor.

As she gazed on the Berks Catholic team warm­ing up that day, she omi­nously scanned a back­line of hit­ters all stand­ing 5-foot-11 or above.

“Once we ro­tated around, we had no­body left,” John­son re­called. “We had to match up our girls with their big guns, and then now what? We didn’t pro­duce the sec­ond time around.”

The 2015 trip was Fort LeBoeuf’s fourth straight berth in the PIAA Class 2A ti­tle game. The Bi­son were handed a third straight loss, in four sets, to Berks. All three con­querors pos­sess a sim­i­lar ap­pel­la­tion: Delone Catholic in 2013, Beth­le­hem Catholic in 2014 and Berks Catholic in 2015 (Fort LeBoeuf, rep­re­sent­ing District 10, had topped Delone in the 2012 fi­nal). Since 2013, eight of the nine PIAA vol­ley­ball ti­tles out­side of the largest clas­si­fi­ca­tion have been claimed by non­pub­lic schools (the lone hold­out is Cory, which ousted District 10 ri­val North Star in the Class 2A fi­nal last fall).

John­son, an ac­com­plished player at Wind­ber High and

that a vol­ley­ball team is only as good as its weak­est link. All it can take is one bad ro­ta­tion, re­lent­lessly ex­ploited by a pin­point server or strate­gic at­tack plan, to ir­re­triev­ably shift the mo­men­tum of a set and a match. The daugh­ter of vol­ley­ball coaches, John­son also is aware of her pro­gram’s lim­i­ta­tions — if a par­tic­u­lar birth year is miss­ing a star out­side hit­ter, for in­stance, there’s no re­course. You just move on try­ing to min­i­mize the detri­ment.

The co­nun­drum John­son and her vol­ley­ball team faces isn’t new, even if it’s gain­ing greater sta­tis­ti­cal heft with each pass­ing in­stall­ment of PIAA cham­pi­onships. A dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of ti­tles is being won by pri­vate schools, a dis­cus­sion sur­fac­ing most vo­cif­er­ously after the foot­ball and bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onships. But the par­a­digm of dom­i­na­tion by pri­vate schools isn’t lim­ited to even a hand­ful of sports. The per­ceived im­bal­ance fos­ters an­i­mos­ity on all sides, from al­le­ga­tions of lop­sided play­ing fields to the well-worn “sour grapes” trope hurled to­ward the de­feated. It leads to the weaponiza­tion of terms like “re­cruit­ing” and “trans­fers,” man­u­fac­tur­ing a strain of trib­al­ism that be­comes most pro­nounced as the post­sea­son rolls around. It causes a large seg­ment of the high school com­mu­nity to fan­ta­size about the pos­si­bil­ity of crown­ing sep­a­rate cham­pi­ons, for pub­lic schools and non­pub­lic pro­grams, in a bid to, as they see it, level the play­ing field.

The is­sue has long been a flash­point in the halls of power of the Pennsylvania In­ter­scholas­tic Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, but reme­dies to the ran­cor re­main elu­sive for rea­sons that range from the ide­o­log­i­cal to the pro­ce­dural, that cleave across over­ar­ch­ing so­cial, class and geo­graphic trends in the Com­mon­wealth. Many peo­ple in­volved in ath­let­ics sub­mit to the in­evitabil­ity of a per­pet­ual state of dis­cord, in­stead work­ing within the con­fines of the sys­tem than bristling at it, try­ing to max­i­mize the ben­e­fit of an im­per­fect sys­tem than seek­ing the myth­i­cal so­lu­tion that will make ev­ery­one happy.

What is cer­tain is that the dis­cus­sions seem nowhere near an end, hav­ing re­curred cycli­cally over the last two decades like an al­ba­tross rein­tro­duc­ing it­self to a sea-weary ship’s crew. With the PIAA in­sti­tut­ing six classes in sev­eral sports last year and ex­pand­ing cham­pi­onships across the board, the dis­cus­sion has gained new life and new ef­forts within the PIAA, which is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ques­tion and could gen­er­ate pro­pos­als for ac­tion as soon as this week, as the or­ga­ni­za­tion gath­ers for one of this year’s six meet­ings.

Within that frame­work, PA Prep Live has sought to pro­vide an­swers to the queries that haunt high school ath­let­ics. Over the course of sev­eral months, we have in­ter­viewed dozens of stake­hold­ers across the state, span­ning an ar­ray of geo­graphic ar­eas and con­stituen­cies. This cross-sec­tion of coaches, ath­letic di­rec­tors and ad­min­is­tra­tors en­com­passes a va­ri­ety of sports and leagues in a state where the con­ver­sa­tion, like its ath­let­ics gov­ern­ing body, is far more mo­saic than mono­lith.

Over the next four days, we’ll present those per­spec­tives, ex­am­in­ing how the state ar­rived at the sta­tus quo and what ten­sions that ar­range­ment cur­rently with­stands. We’ll ap­ply num­bers to what is of­ten voiced as a neb­u­lous (and in the eyes of some, un­founded or overblown) predica­ment, one couched in ob­fus­ca­tion and hollow so­lu­tions billed as panaceas.

Along the way, we’ll wres­tle with ques­tions that ev­ery­one as­so­ci­ated with the sport­ing com­plex in Pennsylvania will rec­og­nize. Is there a way to im­prove com­pet­i­tive bal­ance statewide? Is the problem merely one of per­cep­tion for which pri­vate schools are being scape­goated? And in all of these de­bates about who should have what de­gree of ac­cess to tro­phies that bol­ster the re­sumes of coaches and play­ers alike, does the con­ver­sa­tion of who wins threaten to over­ride the stated em­pha­sis upon who plays and why?

The an­swers of­ten prove con­flict­ing or in­com­plete. But the ques­tions, voiced in­ces­santly in var­i­ous forms over decades, show no signs of abat­ing.

*** Ev­ery­one has heard a tale like the one John­son tells about her vol­ley­ball team, a pub­lic school run over by a pri­vate school pro­gram draw­ing from a vast geo­graphic area. The ex­am­ples are per­va­sive and se­duc­tive in their ve­neer of im­pro­pri­ety.

One need only look at the tweets stream­ing by from Class 6A foot­ball champ St. Joseph’s Prep on Fe­bru­ary’s Na­tional Sign­ing Day to see all the New Jer­sey home­towns listed on re­cruit­ing bios to feel a knee-jerk dis­quiet. The in­stances are too nu­mer­ous to list, and they stir strong pas­sions — whether it’s the PIAA Class 3A boys 500-yard freestyle record being held by Moorestown, N.J., na­tive Matthew Bele­canech of St. Joe’s Prep for nearly a decade, or the two wrestling state ti­tles won by Ryan Diehl, who com­muted daily from his home in West Vir­ginia to Trin­ity High School out­side Harrisburg.

But sort­ing through reams of cham­pi­onship data, there’s an el­e­men­tal ques­tion that must pro­ceed: Are pri­vate/char­ter schools win­ning a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of PIAA and district ti­tles than their pub­lic coun­ter­parts? The short an­swer, as un­cov­ered by a math­e­mat­i­cal anal­y­sis per­formed by PAPrepLive, is yes.

In May 2011, the PIAA’s Board of Con­trol in­tro­duced a plan to amend its con­sti­tu­tion by dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing schools not as “pub­lic” and “pri­vate” but as “bound­ary” and “non-bound­ary.” Bound­ary schools com­prised all pub­lic schools, draw­ing en­roll­ment from within a set ge­o­graph­i­cal district. Non-bound­ary schools were ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing pri­vate and char­ter schools. The scheme was re­jected in March 2012, but it pro­vides a use­ful guide­line in de­lin­eat­ing achieve­ment. The case against def­i­ni­tions then in­cluded a doc­u­ment pre­sented to the leg­isla­tive over­sight com­mit­tee of the General As­sem­bly that quan­ti­ta­tively min­i­mized the is­sue. From 1972, the first year the PIAA ad­mit­ted pri­vate schools, through the 200910 aca­demic year, pri­vate schools had won 18.3 per­cent of some 1,400 PIAA ti­tles awarded in 23 sports. That share was less than the re­ported 19.7 per­cent of the PIAA’s mem­ber­ship that pri­vate schools con­sti­tuted.

Much has changed in five years. Us­ing the doc­u­ment’s for­mat, PAPrepLive per­formed an anal­y­sis of the non-bound­ary schools’ per­for­mance since the 2008-09 sea­son, the first in which the Philadel­phia Catholic League was el­i­gi­ble to com­pete for state ti­tles.

Through the 2016-17 year, non­bound­ary schools have claimed 188 of 547 team ti­tles in 24 sports. That’s a share of 34.4 per­cent. Non-bound­ary schools com­prise just 24.2 per­cent of the PIAA’s 766 mem­ber high schools for the 201617 sea­son, per the PIAA’s di­rec­tory.

The dis­par­ity is even more glar­ing when char­ter schools are ex­cluded. The PIAA counts 40 char­ter high schools in its mem­ber­ship this year, a rel­a­tively nascent pop­u­la­tion. Char­ter schools have ac­counted for just eight cham­pi­onships, all but one in boys bas­ket­ball.

Ex­clud­ing those ti­tles low­ers the to­tal for pri­vate schools to 180 cham­pi­onships or 32.9 per­cent of the PIAA crowns. The PIAA in­cludes 145 pri­vate school mem­bers, 18.9 per­cent. That means pri­vate schools are tak­ing home cham­pi­onships at a rate nearly twice their pop­u­la­tion share.

Most telling about the is­sue of per­cep­tion is where these cham­pi­onships are being won.

Present the quandary of pri­vate-school suc­cess to many ad­min­is­tra­tors, and they’ll tell you it centers on three sports — foot­ball and boys and girls bas­ket­ball, re­garded at the col­lege lev­els “rev­enue sports.” That as­sess­ment stems from a ker­nel of truth: Over the last nine in­stall­ments of the PIAA bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onships, non­bound­ary schools have claimed 47 of 76 ti­tles (61.8 per­cent). In foot­ball, the per­cent­age is a more mod­est 52.6 per­cent (20 of 38), though it ap­pears to be ac­cel­er­at­ing with four of six ti­tles won by non-bound­ary schools in the first in­stance of an ex­panded fi­nals cal­en­dar last fall.

But the dis­pro­por­tion­al­ity is by no means con­strained to those three sports. In 17 of 24 sports sur­veyed, non-bound­ary schools carted away gold medals at a rate greater than their share of PIAA mem­ber­ship.

Coun­try club sports such as boys and girls golf (42.9 and 50 per­cent, re­spec­tively) are among those where non-bound­ary schools punch most vig­or­ously above their weight. Among team sports, base­ball (29.0 per­cent), field hockey (31.6) and boys (32.1) and girls soc­cer (30.8) see a large pro­por­tion of tro­phies hauled away by non­bound­ary teams. Con­sid­er­ing that these ti­tles are al­most en­tirely won by pri­vate — not char­ter — schools, the out­per­for­mance is more pro­nounced.

Seven of the last 12 state cham­pi­ons in girls cross coun­try hail from the non-bound­ary set. In this mil­len­nium, only two PIAA Class 2A (smaller clas­si­fi­ca­tion) girls swim­ming team ti­tles have been claimed by a bound­ary school, Her­shey … which has since been el­e­vated to Class 3A. Even wrestling, once thought of as the purview of ru­ral schools, has seen Beth­le­hem Catholic evolve into a pow­er­house that has claimed five du­als ti­tles.

The in­crease in cham­pi­onships for the 2016-17 cam­paign seems to ex­ac­er­bate the dis­par­ity, al­beit over a small sam­ple. Fif­teen of 33 cham­pi­onships (45.5 per­cent) be­stowed in the fall went to non-bound­ary schools, in­clud­ing eight of 23 in team sports (34.8 per­cent) from tour­na­ments where non-bound­ary schools com­prised just 23.1 per­cent of en­trants. Or, if you’d pre­fer the head-to-head il­lus­tra­tion in those six team sports, non-bound­ary schools won 72 of 118 games against their bound­ary coun­ter­parts in the fall, a win­ning per­cent­age of .610.

“A lot of pub­lic school coaches feel like can­non fod­der for pri­vate schools,” long­time Man­heim Town­ship foot­ball coach Mike Wil­liams told Lan­caster Online just last December (Wil­liams coached in District 3, which in­cludes just six non­bound­ary schools among 92 foot­ball pro­grams, but since 2000, those schools have won 23 of 70 district ti­tles). “I’m not say­ing any­thing bad about pri­vate schools. This is about giv­ing pub­lic schools a chance at some­thing won­der­ful — a state cham­pi­onship.”

The co­nun­drum is de­cid­edly more pro­nounced, as girls swim­ming and vol­ley­ball il­lus­trates, at the smaller clas­si­fi­ca­tions, where small en­roll­ments and large catch­ment ar­eas add up to se­lec­tiv­ity. Hyper­com­pet­i­tive leagues like the Catholic League fur­ther mud­dle the pic­ture: When reg­u­lar-sea­son pres­tige is de­fined by a con­fer­ence ti­tle con­tested among schools span­ning three or four classes, de­scend­ing to the post­sea­son against like-sized op­po­si­tion can turn those games into laugh­ers.

Us­ing south­east­ern Pennsylvania as a mi­cro­cosm, the Catholic League’s dom­i­nance is bla­tant. Since join­ing the PIAA, 10 Catholic League schools have won state ti­tles out of a mem­ber­ship when, ad­justed for sin­gle-sex ed­u­ca­tion, adds up to 13.5 mem­bers (11 coed schools, four all boys, three all girls). That means that 74.1 per­cent of the league’s schools have won a state team ti­tle. That rate far out­strips any other league within its over­lap­ping geo­graphic area over the same pe­riod: The Cen­tral League (8 of 12, 66.7 per­cent); Sub­ur­ban One (14 of 24, 58.3); Ch­esMont (7 of 14, 50); Del Val (2 of 5.5, 36.4); and the Pi­o­neer Ath­letic Con­fer­ence (4 of 12, 33). Iron­i­cally, one ti­tle for each the Ches-Mont and Pac-10 were won by non-bound­ary schools, Bishop Shana­han and Pope John Paul II, re­spec­tively.

“This hurts kids,” said Pat Ratesic, the for­mer chair­man of District 7 in sub­ur­ban Pitts­burgh. “And when you have schools, like in our area Clair­ton and Jean­nette that have come on hard times, that’s the only thing these small towns have. They have foot­ball and bas­ket­ball teams that peo­ple can go see and feel good about them­selves. And it’s go­ing by the way­side be­cause they’re not able to com­pete.”

And then there’s vol­ley­ball, where re­cent history had dic­tated that the only way a pub­lic school can win is to amass the num­bers to get into Class 4A, the do­main of mega-schools like Park­land. Yet even there, as re­cently as 2009, two non-bound­ary schools — Bishop Shana­han and Al­len­town Cen­tral Catholic — jousted for the ti­tle.

Look­ing back at her first fi­nals loss at Fort LeBoeuf, against Delone Catholic in 2013, John­son re­called a par­ent of­fer­ing her con­so­la­tion in the af­ter­math of a gru­el­ing five-set roller coaster. With silver medal in hand, the par­ent be­stowed on John­son an­other wellmean­ing hon­orific that she hadn’t con­sid­ered: “Hey, at least you’re the best pub­lic school in the state.”

In the mo­ment, it wasn’t the caveat that John­son sought, her team hav­ing been a few points away from re­mov­ing any qual­i­fiers on their ac­co­lade. She ap­pre­ci­ated the con­sol­ing sen­ti­ment, but in time she’s also come to un­der­stand the des­ig­na­tion isn’t just a pat on the back in a tough mo­ment.

“I think it’s ab­so­lutely some­thing you carry with pride,” she said. “… At first, it never crossed my mind as any­thing other than a par­ent con­sol­ing at a mo­ment when I was down. And I laughed at it. … But I do think that’s an ac­cu­rate state­ment.”

Com­ing next week: How the en­dur­ing co­nun­drum of com­pet­i­tive bal­ance in high school ath­let­ics has been han­dled in the past, and what those ef­forts por­tend for the hope of change in the fu­ture.


Arch­bishop Wood poses for a cham­pi­onship photo after de­feat­ing Villa maria dur­ing the PIAA Class 3A girls’ cham­pi­onship game at the Gi­ant Cen­ter on Satur­day, March 19, 2016, in Her­shey.


Delone Catholic girls cross coun­try head coach Richard Zinn is all smiles after being handed the PIAA District Three Cross Coun­try A cham­pi­onship tro­phy Oct. 23, 2013.

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