Beaver County judge to decide if Aliquippa football moves to Class 5A or stays in 4A

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Friday, May 17, 2024 | 8:04 PM


After three days of testimony in a Beaver County courtroom, attorneys for Aliquippa and the PIAA used their closing arguments to paint a contentious competitive-balance rule in drastically different ways.

Aliquippa attorney Tina Miller said the PIAA Competition Formula was “irrational and unconstitutional,” while requesting a preliminary injunction to keep the football team from being forced into a higher classification. In contrast, PIAA attorney Dana Chilson said the rule was applied consistently to all schools and insisted defending state champion Aliquippa was the one seeking special treatment with its lawsuit.

Whether Aliquippa plays football next season in Class 4A or 5A now rests with Common Pleas Judge James Ross, who said Friday he’d likely issue a ruling within 7-10 days.

The judge heard the first two days of testimony April 23-24, before schedule conflicts resulted in a three-week pause. The WPIAL already has issued Aliquippa a Class 5A schedule, so changes would be needed if a preliminary injunction were granted.

“I know this is important to both sides,” Ross told the attorneys, “so I will work expeditiously on this.”

Aliquippa filed its lawsuit with plans to expose the competitive-balance rule as flawed and unfair, backed by testimony from two orthopedic surgeons, school district administrators and the Quips’ football coach. Miller said the rule never accomplished its intended goal, was written without adequate research and puts athletes’ health and safety at risk — arguments rejected by the PIAA.

“The PIAA wants to put blinders on and not listen to any of that,” Miller said.

She said Aliquippa wasn’t asking the court to strike down the rule entirely but wanted the judge to grant a preliminary injunction that keeps the team in 4A for two more years.

Chilson argued in closing that Aliquippa hadn’t satisfied the legal burden needed for a preliminary injunction. She said “speculation” about health and safety shouldn’t be enough.

“What is the irreparable harm to Aliquippa School District?” said Chilson, adding that the PIAA isn’t taking away any opportunities. “They just don’t get to pick where they play.”

The hearing resumed Friday morning with PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi retaking the witness stand. The court heard from PIAA chief operating officer Mark Byers in the afternoon.

After fielding questions from attorneys, Lombardi was asked several by the judge. Ross seemed open to considering Aliquippa’s argument that the rule was written arbitrarily and without scientific data about health and safety.

The judge pressed Lombardi on how the PIAA decided to eliminate health and safety as ground for appeal under the competition formula. Ross recalled testimony from Aliquippa team doctor Stephen Hribar, who said he told the PIAA in a 2022 appeal hearing that he’d seen an increase in injuries after the Quips were moved from Class 3A to 4A.

Lombardi said the PIAA board didn’t necessarily agree with Hribar.

“Individual board members didn’t think that was happening in their local areas,” said Lombardi, adding that the board decided a team successful enough to be moved up wouldn’t be at increased risk of injury.

Hribar, the acting chief medical officer at AHN Grove City, and Dr. Patrick DeMeo, who heads the orthopedic surgery department for Allegheny Health Network, testified April 23. The two physicians said there would be health risks associated with a team playing against opponents with a larger enrollment.

Both testified that the PIAA should conduct data-driven research.

The judge also asked Lombardi why meeting minutes from the board of directors and competition committee didn’t detail the discussions that the PIAA said took place.

“I don’t know what else to tell you, judge. Maybe I’ve done a lousy job doing minutes,” said Lombardi, insisting there was “a step-by-step process” stretching back to 2017.

The competitive-balance rule affects teams that have success in the state playoffs and add three or more transfers in a two-year cycle.

The PIAA has cited Aliquippa’s success on the field as evidence that moving to a higher classification won’t put the team in danger. The Quips have reached the PIAA finals three years in a row, winning state Class 4A titles last year and in 2021.

“There is zero evidence that Aliquippa has been treated differently than any other school,” said Chilson, adding that the rule was created at the request of member schools and state legislators.

As Aliquippa’s attorney, Miller highlighted that the football team already was voluntarily playing two classes above its actual enrollment before the PIAA adopted the rule in 2018. The Quips had a Class A enrollment in recent years and now qualify for 2A.

Miller said the rule was originally intended to stop successful teams from “reloading” through transfers. Yet, school administrators detailed how the five players Aliquippa added in 2022 and ’23 contributed little. She said the rule forced Aliquippa into a higher classification while other successful football programs statewide were not.

“The transfer portion of the rule bears no relation to competitive balance or success,” Miller said. “That is the definition of arbitrary and capricious.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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