Aliquippa football staying in Class 4A after judge issues preliminary injunction against PIAA

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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | 12:02 PM


Aliquippa will remain in Class 4A football next season, a Beaver County judge ruled Thursday.

The school district won the first battle in its lawsuit against the PIAA when Common Pleas Judge James Ross granted Aliquippa’s request for a preliminary injunction. As a result, the football team for now will avoid a pending promotion to Class 5A under the PIAA competitive-balance rule.

“Aliquippa shall be retained in the 4A classification … for the 2024 football season pending final determination of the merits in this case,” Ross wrote in his order. He made clear his decision affected only the upcoming season.

The three-day hearing at the Beaver County Courthouse started with testimony April 23-24 and finished Friday. Aliquippa filed its lawsuit with plans to expose the competitive-balance rule as flawed and unfair, saying the Quips shouldn’t be forced to play against opponents with three or four times more students.

The rule affects football teams that have success in the state playoffs and add three or more transfers in a two-year cycle. Those teams are moved into a higher classification.

The WPIAL already has issued Aliquippa a Class 5A football schedule, but that now would need to be changed. WPIAL chief operating officer Vince Sortino, who oversees the league’s schedules, referred questions to the PIAA.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi declined comment.

“It’s still so disconcerting that we had to get to this point because they’ve taken it personally,” Aliquippa football coach Mike Warfield said of the PIAA leadership. “Based on their history, they’re going to fight anyone who goes against their decision-making, and they have $15 million to do it.”

Aliquippa in 2022 avoided a promotion to Class 5A, in part by raising health and safety concerns during its appeal hearing with the PIAA. However, the PIAA later specifically removed health and safety as grounds for an appeal, a decision the judge criticized in his ruling Thursday.

“(U)pon cross examination, Dr. Lombardi admitted that the PIAA did not undertake any studies or seek any medical opinions or input in making the decision to eliminate health and safety as a factor for consideration in connection with an internal appeal,” Ross said. “Aliquippa contends this change was made in response to their 2022 appeal.”

Lombardi testified that the PIAA eliminated health and safety as grounds for an appeal after deciding that a team affected by the Competition Formula wouldn’t have a greater risk of injury playing in a higher classification because of its on-field success.

“This is not a legitimate explanation for the failure to seek medical data or opinions or undertake a thorough investigation before making such a change in policy,” Ross said in his decision, “especially when one is making assumptions with regard to health and safety of male teenagers. The testimony and the evidence at the preliminary injunction hearing revealed that the PIAA has more than sufficient resources to fund a study on the subject.”

The judge noted that the PIAA in a 2022 letter to Aliquippa cited health risks for opponents as one reason the football team couldn’t return to Class 3A.

“This gives the appearance that the PIAA will consider health and safety when it benefits a decision made and reject, or refuse to consider, it in other situations,” Ross said.

Aliquippa presented five witnesses during the hearing, a list that included orthopedic surgeons Stephen Hribar and Patrick DeMeo, superintendent Phillip Woods, athletic director Jennifer Damico and Warfield, the football coach. Lombardi and chief operating officer Mark Byers testified for the PIAA.

Aliquippa was voluntarily playing up two classifications — from Class A to 3A football — before the PIAA adopted the competitive-balance rule in 2018. The Quips were moved up to Class 4A in 2020.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Aliquippa senior Cameron Lindsey said of the judge’s decision. “We shouldn’t even be playing 4A, but I’m happy they made the right decision to keep us in 4A.”

State Rep. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver), a critic of the PIAA competitive-balance rule, praised the judge’s decision.

“Today’s ruling is a temporary victory not just for Aliquippa football, but for all student-athletes across our commonwealth,” Matzie said in a statement. “The court clearly identified player safety as the primary factor in its determination. This is the core issue that I, and many others, have cited as the overriding reason for the Quips to remain in 4A.

“In addition, the court found that Aliquippa ‘has established a likelihood of success on the merits’ of their case, which further speaks to the need for an overhaul of the PIAA competition classification formula. In that light, I will continue to work — through the legislative process if necessary — toward a more fair and equitable method of classifying our schools for athletic competition.”

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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