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Fodder for Sgt. Friday

“Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” That famous line often used by Sgt. Joe Friday in the decade’s old “Dragnet” television show could be being used these days by officials of the PIAA in defending the makeup of this year’s State Basketball Championships. Seemingly, the PIAA continues to operate with their heads in the

“Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”

That famous line often used by Sgt. Joe Friday in the decade’s old “Dragnet” television show could be being used these days by officials of the PIAA in defending the makeup of this year’s State Basketball Championships. Seemingly, the PIAA continues to operate with their heads in the sand regarding the total opposite eligibility criteria regarding the rules surrounding a player’s residency status. Paraphrasing, the state’s public schools are permitted to use only those athletes who reside within the prescribed geographical boundaries of their specific school district. On the other hand, both private and charter schools are free to enroll and play athletes from wherever they choose.

Based on the makeup of the 24 teams competing in this year’s tournament, the PIAA can accurately point out the count was about even. To be precise, there were 13 private and 11 public schools competing for gold and five-pound Hershey Bars at the Giant Center. In 2017, that count was 15 private schools and nine public schools. This year, of the 12 state titles won in the various Divisions, seven were won by private schools, and five came from the public school sector.

That statistical parity also existed in the five head-to-head match-ups in games featuring private and public schools. The private schools won three of those games, and the public squads came out on top twice. The private victory’s included: Imhotep Charter’s 71-35 rout of Sharon in AAAA Boys, Neumann-Goretti’s 57-42 win over Richland in AAA Boys and AAAAAA champion Roman Catholic’s entertaining 92-80 outscoring of fellow Philadelphia public school foe Lincoln.

The public schools’ two wins came as Bellwood-Antis edged West Catholic 45-42 in AA Girls and AAAAA Mars used a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Archbishop Wood 36-33. The Mars win may have been the stunner of the tournament. Archbishop Wood was the defending two-time state champion, had won five state titles since 2010, and was appearing in the state championship game for the eighth time in the last nine years.

So based upon the above-mentioned ‘facts’ the defenders of the PIAA’s existing position could have come away from championship week thinking all this fuss about equity in eligibility rules was sour grapes or fool’s gold, similar to the dozens of medals they hung around the necks of the newly crowned champions.

In fairness, the PIAA deserves credit for pulling off a smoothly run tournament despite the rescheduling that had to be made at the last minute caused by the late March snowstorm. While the merit of their decision to increase the state championships to six levels may be disputed, the joy on the faces of the young athletes winning those coveted crowns is truly a special moment.

But don’t let those ‘facts’ cloud the issue. As actor Tom Hanks explained in the movie “Apollo 13”, “Houston, we have a problem.” Those steering the PIAA ship shouldn’t be fooled by patches of calm waters. They have a problem whether or not they are comfortable or interested in finding a solution.

Athletic eligibility or school choice is not the issue. Where an individual goes to pursue their education should be just that, their choice. But like ‘apples & oranges’ it is very tricky to mix the two. On the surface, one solution many have offered is to create two separate tournaments; one for the private schools and one for the public schools. Another is to require all schools to use the population base from which their students are drawn to determine their level of competition. That is already being done in District IV where small student enrollment CMVT is required to play at a higher level based upon the areas of Columbia and Montour Counties from which their enrollment is drawn.

Public schools also ‘fudge the rules’ when it comes to accepting athletes from ‘outside their boundaries.’ Some of that takes place right here in our own backyard. Often such transfers are said to have been granted for ‘academic’ purposes. But to level the playing field, corrective action needs to be implemented.

Much has been written and discussed regarding the recent transfer of Delaware’s Diamond Johnson to District XII and perennial state powerhouse Neumann-Goretti. A sophomore, Johnson was averaging 30 points a game for her Delaware High School before ‘academic reasons’ led to her transfer to Neumann-Goretti just a few weeks before the PIAA State Championships. The transfer was so late that she was not included in the Neumann-Goretti team photo printed in the PIAA State Championship program. Surely N-G’s fourth consecutive state championship was not a contributing factor in those ‘academic’ decisions.
‘Just the facts Ma’am,’ try these on for size.

Since the PIAA created District 12 (comprised of the Philadelphia schools), the tournament may just as well be re-named the Philadelphia Invitational. Since that 2006 beginning, 39 state titles have been won by the City of Brotherly Love schools, including five this year. Twenty-two times during this same time frame, District 12 schools have been crowned runners-up. Interestingly enough, on five occasions District 12 teams faced each other in the championship game. Combining all those District 12 appearances in Hershey, 59 of those teams were private or charter schools. Only this year did a District 12 team come from a public school. That team, Lincoln, fell to fellow District 12 member Roman Catholic in the Boy’s AAAAAA title tilt.

As for our own District IV — yes, we were represented this year by Lourdes Regional who were rudely dismissed 78-36 by Kennedy Catholic in Boy’s Class A. The three-time state champions, featuring 6’10” junior Oscar Tshiebwe, led 30-0 after the first quarter. Virginia coach Tony Bennett and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins were both in attendance in their recruitment of Tshiebwe.

Lourdes’ appearance marked the first visit to Hershey by a District IV team since Kelly Mazzante’s 2000 squad lost to Blackhawk in the AAA Girl’s championship game.

Too bad Joe Friday is no longer with us. He’d have a lot to investigate.

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