Area coaches prefer split playoffs

Heated issue to be examined at state level this coming week

A legislative committee that oversees the PIAA will have a public hearing next week during which the idea of separate championships for public and private schools will be discussed.

An anonymous poll conducted by the Mirror sent out to 136 of the region’s public school head football, boys basketball and girls basketball coaches left no doubt about their feelings on the subject.

Out of the 60 responses, it was a unanimous vote to separate the playoffs. Furthermore, 50 of those coaches said they felt their team has been held back or put at a disadvantage due to competing against private schools. Of the nine who said they weren’t, several cited the only reason was that their league or playoff classification did not include private schools. One coach who answered the separation question did not answer the disadvantage question.

“It’s been my experience throughout the years that it hasn’t always been a level playing field,” said Bellwood-Antis girls basketball coach Jim Swaney, whose team won the Class 2A state championship over West Catholic this past season. “I’m very supportive of whatever education you want to give your son or daughter, and I’ve always just accepted that’s the way the rules are. I knew unless state legislation was going to change it, it was never going to change.

“My concerns have nothing to do with recruiting. I just never thought it was a level playing field from enrollment only. If I was a 2A public school collecting kids from one district, and there is a private school which is 2A getting people from five school districts, that doesn’t seem fair. But, I’ve never been one for banging the drum against it.”

Penn Cambria football coach John Franco, who also was an assistant at Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic and won a state title with Tyrone, agreed with the idea of separate playoffs but came the closest among the public coaches to breaking the unanimous vote.

“I like the competition of playing private schools,” Franco said. “Yet, I don’t have a problem breaking it up (into separate playoffs), because it gives more kids a chance to win a championship (because two teams would be considered champions).”

Private viewpoint

Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic and Bishop Carroll Catholic are the only two private schools affiliated with the PIAA in the Mirror’s direct coverage area, but those schools have been competing alongside Johnstown’s Bishop McCort in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference for years. Coaches from all three of those schools were also contacted for a separate poll. Four of the five coaches reached did not support the separation of the playoffs.

“Even in today’s times you see, maybe it’s because how prevalent the AAU teams got, kids are all together who want to play together,” former Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic girls basketball coach Mark Moschella said. “You see transfers from public to public all the time, and I just personally feel they already liquidated the whole strength of a state championship by adding six classifications. To make it that you are a state champion in one way, but no you aren’t really because you didn’t play that other strong team that won its side of the championship, it even liquidates it even more. We have been there nine times, it is tough to win, but at least when you walked out with the gold ball, you knew you were the best. The more you liquidate it, it doesn’t define a true state champion.”

Both public and private coaches expressed an interest in a public school champion playing against a private school champion at the end of both playoffs if they were separated.

“I agree with (Moschella’s comment) in the sense that it would be odd to have two state champions,” Central Cambria girls basketball coach Brittany Sedlock said. “It would take some getting used to.”

Sedlock has an interesting background when it comes to the public-private debate. As a player at Northern Cambria, she made it to the state championship in 2008 only to lose to York Catholic. In three of her first four years coaching at Central Cambria, the Lady Red Devils have been eliminated from the state playoffs in the first round by Bishop Canevin.

“If it were separate in past years, I’d be a state champion, and my teams would have had an easier draw in the state playoffs,” Sedlock said. “It’s challenging, because they are always filling up with fresh new talent, and they don’t ever seem to have a growing year, but at the same time, it’s rewarding when you do beat them.”

Though Franco can understand why some people could view the championships as watered down if the playoffs were split, he said it wouldn’t make a difference to the kids playing in the games.

“Ask any of the kids that have won a championship recently if they think it is diminished that won a championship with six classes instead of four,” Franco said. “For the kids, it’s always going to be special, especially in a community like Tyrone. It wouldn’t make a difference with a classification of six or four or public or private classification.”

Catholic disadvantage?

The Mirror’s poll clearly showed that many public school coaches believe they have it tougher than private schools, but Franco said it’s a lot more even than people realize.

“If your program is good enough, you will attract people to it,” Franco said. “Public schools can get kids from other districts, they just have to pay tuition. They have the same opportunity.”

Franco led Tyrone to the state final in 1996 and won it in 1999. He said the success attracted players originally from other school districts, even though Tyrone is a public school.

“Kids transferred from Altoona to Tyrone because parents wanted them to play for Tyrone and moved,” Franco said. “Am I supposed to tell them not to move? We were riding high at the time in Tyrone, and people wanted to play for us. People automatically assumed that I had recruited them, but it was the parents who were doing what they thought was the best for their kid.

“When’s the last time you heard someone say they are upset because someone said they wanted to move their kids to another school because someone has a better biology program?”

Franco, who also had two stints as the head coach at Altoona, said Catholic schools face unique challenges that public schools do not have to worry about.

“Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get a full tuition,” Franco said. “They have to follow a policy, pay the same amount as every other student, and some are not eligible for scholarships that others are. Most parents make great financial sacrifices, and that’s the No. 1 disadvantage. Secondly, you have a smaller population to choose from. Public kids might want to come play, but they don’t have the money or their parents don’t want their kids part of a religious school.”

Just a cycle?

Franco said he’s been around long enough on both sides to realize that public opinion on the matter operates in cycles.

“I have a different perspective because I’ve coached on both sides,” Franco said. “BG football is a good example. In the 20 years prior to 2013 when they lost to Homer-Center and then won three state titles in a row, they were very poor and no one complained about them.

“They got really good kids, and those were Catholic school kids that I knew were coming up, and as soon as they got good, something was unfair.”

Playoff prestige

Another part of the Mirror’s poll asked public school coaches if they had any concern that if public and private school playoffs became separate that more kids could go to private schools because their parents believe those playoffs would get more recognition from colleges than the public school playoffs. Only six of the 58 coaches who answered the question said they’d have any concern of losing players.

Though the Mirror’s polls were anonymous, coaches quoted in this story agreed to share their thoughts on the record. Michael Boytim can be reached at mboytim@altoonamirror.com or 946-7521.

Altoona Mirror’s poll

A questionnaire was sent out to 136 of the region’s PIAA head football, boys basketball and girls basketball coaches. The following are the questions exactly as they were worded and the results of the 60 responses.

n Do you like the idea of separate playoffs for public and private schools? 60 yes; 0 no; 100 percent. (Football, 23-0; boys basketball, 22-0; girls basketball, 15-0)

n Do you feel your team has been held back or put at a disadvantage by playing against private schools? 50 yes; 9 no; 84.7 percent. (Football, 17-5; boys basketball 19-3; girls basketball, 14-1)

n Is there any concern that if public and private school playoffs are separate that more kids could go to private schools because their parents believe those playoffs would get more recognition from colleges than public school playoffs? 6 yes; 52 no; 10.3 percent (Football, 1-20; boys basketball, 3-19; girls basketball, 2-13)

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