Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series.
The outcry from public school coaches and administrators has reached a fervor in Pennsylvania in the last decade as non-boundary schools have won what public schools say is a disproportionate number of district and state championships.
Public schools (583 members) make up 76 percent of the total number of high schools in Pennsylvania and private schools of choice (186) make up 24 percent. From 2008-2017, non-boundary schools won 63.6 percent of the boys basketball state titles and 59.1 percent of the girls titles. They also won half of the state football titles.
“I fully agree with the separation of private and parochial schools from public schools,”said Jim Morris, who coached a number of sports at Avella High School and was the school’s athletic director for 18 years. “After all, it sometimes is not so much the X and O’s but the Jimmy and Joes (who) make a team a successful.
“The small schools have to play with whatever people they have locally. Therefore, I do not think, as the system is now, makes an even playing field. We need to make all schools play by the same rules.”
Gina Naccarato, Monessen High School’s athletic director and former girls basketball coach, said the ability to go out and get players to fill specific needs at the high school level just is not in the spirit of what high school sports should be about.
“It is very important to separate these schools for the postseason,” Naccarato said. “(Private schools) look at what position they are weak at and go out and recruit a player to fill that position. Public schools work with a player to become better in that position and develop them during their career. To me, this is the epitome of what a high school coach is supposed to do.”
Guy Montecalvo, a retired athletic director and former high school football and track coach, said the only way to change the rules is to examine, question and educate politicians, who could ultimately make a change.
“The only recourse for the public schools is to hold their respective state representatives accountable at election time,” Montecalvo said. “I did that very thing (last election) with the candidates that were running for representatives in (specific) districts. When asking them about their position on the issues (taxes, roads, unemployment, housing and pensions) we need to ask their position on boundary vs. non-boundary schools.
“I can think of no good or rational reason why any public-school administration would not support this move. They are the advocates and the stewards for their local families and student-athletes.”
When Russ Moore coached football at Waynesburg Central he brought a lot of enthusiasm to the program and built an atmosphere and spirit within the school and throughout the district. Winning helps lift the spirits of most involved in a school district, he said.
“Schools that have success have more school pride and community support and involvement,” said Moore, also the former athletic director at Waynesburg. “If your teams at your school are winning a conference, regional or state competition or are at least being competitive, then you will see a large difference in your school’s attendance, academic scores and disciplinary problems. I’ve seen it and I’ve had principals and teachers agree with this statement. Winning breeds all kinds of winning. So if you are always losing to schools who can get the best from anywhere, it’s like banging your head against the wall, and after a while some of your own will just say, ‘If we can’t beat them, transfer to them.’ ”
What irritates public schools is for the allowance that a student-athlete from, say, California Area School District, can attend North Catholic, a school 40 to 50 miles to the north, to play basketball. AOr a student-athlete can live in Waynesburg and attend a parochial school in the South Hills. Students from Ohio, New York and New Jersey, are participating in various sports in PIAA schools.
“How can this be fair to public schools that have established boundaries?” Montecalvo asked. “I have no problem with a family who moves their homestead into a school district who has successful programs in such things as performing arts, accomplished artistic programs, STEM programs or successful sports programming.
“If a family wants to do this, it is their right as Americans. But to be allowed to live miles away and not commit to this, to me, is unfair to the public school coaches who work diligently year after year to develop the talent that resides within the boundaries of their districts.”
Eric Manko, Monessen’s principal, offered another alternative.
“I think a separate postseason is doable and other states have tournaments for all classifications, public and private, and then a tournament of champions so to (speak),” he said. “The running of multiple tournaments at the same time may not be feasible.
“One thing that is overlooked is most private schools do not receive any state or federal funding for their programs. So why should they compete with schools that do? That is one way it could be divided – public-funded schools (which would include most charters) and private (most parochial and private schools). Why should the PIAA or WPIAL give free advertising and promotion for these schools during their championships and playoffs, while taking away from those schools who are publicly funded?”
Transfer of power
Joe Nicolella is a retired former athletic director from Washington High School. He now resides in the central part of the state. He has followed the boundary/non-boundary issue closely. He said the outlook is different in the central part of the state compared with the west.
“The Lancaster-Lebanon League is comprised mostly of large public schools, and in the nearly three years that I’ve been here, there has not been one article in the newspaper about some school contesting a transfer,” Nicolella said. “There are very few private schools here compared with the WPIAL. Lancaster Catholic and Lancaster Mennonite are usually strong in boys basketball with Catholic schools also strong in girls hoops.
“I do remember a basketball player from Mennonite being quoted in the newspaper the first year I was here (2016-17 season) after he had a good game saying, ‘That’s why they brought me here,’ or something to that effect. Nothing became of that to my knowledge.”
Neumann-Goretti, a boys and girls basketball powerhouse in Pennsylvania is one of a number of non-boundary schools that attract student-athletes in from other states. Others who get athletes from out of state and, in some cases, out of the country, include St. Joseph’s Prep (football), Lincoln Park (basketball), Erie Cathedral Prep (football), Kennedy Catholic (basketball), Glen Mills in numerous sports, Bethlehem Catholic (wrestling) and Shady Side Academy (football) in the 1990s.
In 1998, Shady Side Academy won the WPIAL Class AA title. It was documented in various news outlets that it had six Division-I recruits and the team’s roster represented 51 different zip codes.
Erie Cathedral Prep has dominated Thomas Jefferson, also a powerful and decorated football program, in the state playoffs. ECP walloped South Fayette, another top-notch program from the WPIAL, this past season in the PIAA tournament.
St. Joseph Prep’s star quarterback this past year resides in New Jersey. Most people in District 10 and around the state are aware of the prowess of Kennedy Catholic which has house parents who routinely sponsor kids from outside the U.S. This season, Kennedy Catholic – the defending PIAA Class A champion – voluntarily moved up to Class 6A, the highest largest in the PIAA.
What seems to have exacerbated the boundary vs. non-boundary debate is that the Neumann-Goretti girls basketball team accepted a transfer from Virginia during the 2017-2018 postseason and played her in the PIAA playoffs.
Diamond Johnson played 19 games for Phoebus High School, located in the Tidewater, Va., region. She averaged 33 points per game before transferring to Neumann-Goretti in early February of 2018. She gained eligibility from the PIAA and became a focal point to the team’s romp to the PIAA championship.
The transfer and immediate acceptance of Johnson by Neumann-Goretti and her insertion into the starting lineup ignited the emotions of public schools and even other private schools, including Bishop Canevin, which was defeated by Neumann-Goretti in the championship game. Ironically, an assistant girls basketball at Bishop Canevin was suspended this month for one year by the WPIAL for violating PIAA recruiting rules.
“The (Neumann-Goretti) transfer I think is completely unfair,” Naccarato said. “We as a district implemented a rule that if someone missed the two-week period leading up to the beginning of a particular season and then wanted to come out and participate, they had to get 10 practices in before joining the team.
“As a coach, I would not allow a transfer or anyone to come in and take over a starting role or any role that displaced a player who had been with the program the whole season. I’d let them practice but they would not be playing until the next season. I’ve done that.
“Winning is super-seeding everything,” she continued. “We’re in education to teach kids about life and, in general, I just don’t think that is happening in some places. It’s just not fair. It’s not real life.”
That Neumann-Goretti transfer likely led to the new PIAA transfer and competitive success formulas adopted before the current school year.
“This has become one of the most polarizing, flashpoint issues that I have witnessed in the 40-plus years that I have been affiliated in high school athletics,” Montecalvo said.
He noted that it led to an athletic summit, held in State College in July, that was attended by more than 200 superintendents, principals and athletic directors, who discussed the lack of perceived equality.
The cooperative sponsorship rules of the PIAA prohibit a swimmer or a girls field hockey player or a rifle competitor from going to a school that does not have a contiguous boundary to a school that has that programming. However, a student-athlete can attend a private school, regardless of where it is located. In addition, public schools that receive such a student must take on the enrollment numbers of the sending school, which could place the former in a higher classification.
While some districts remain silent, others admit the issue isn’t as compelling as it is for smaller districts.
Laura Grimm, athletic director at Ringgold, said that “right now, Ringgold does not have strong convictions either way. She added that the district “supports other districts in their right to approach the state legislature.”
While the issue is not currently important for Ringgold, Grimm said that could change and “be cyclical over any handful of years.”
What to do?
Justin Stephenson, athletic director at Waynesburg Central, said change is imperative.
“These non-boundary schools are choosing their teams, not inheriting them like public schools,” he added. “You cannot allow non-boundary schools this unfair advantage and expect boundary schools to keep up.
“I think most schools would consider alternatives. I do not know how many would actually leave the PIAA. At this time, I am unaware of what the alternatives would look like.”
What options are left for boundary schools?
“It is unknown at this time what lengths our school district would go to in the future,” said Linda Messich, athletic director at Mapletown. “Alternatives to the PIAA would be a very big move and couldn’t be undertaken without a lot of forethought, discussion and planning. I do feel that the boundary schools would need to come together and be united in any effort to make a change.”
Nicolella recalled an encounter during a football game in his first year as AD at Wash High.
“I went to an away football game we had with a conference opponent and I had taken an elderly friend,” Nicolella said. “Because my old friend had bad knees, we sat on the home side and near the top of the bleachers because you entered the stadium from the top.
“Before kickoff, another elderly gentleman, in the seat in front of us, wanted everyone seated nearby to know that he faced a dilemma that night. One of his grandsons, a sophomore, would be starting his first game at quarterback for (Seton-La Salle High School at another venue). The grandson’s brother was the starting quarterback at South Fayette, the school Wash High was playing.
It just so happened the grandfather ended the explanation of his dilemma as his eyes met with mine. He said, ‘They have been after him since he was in 8th grade.’ I replied, ‘Sir, that’s illegal.’ To which he said, ‘Aw, you know, they do it all the time.’”