Aliquippa forced to move to Class 5A football after PIAA rejects appeal

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Wednesday, January 24, 2024 | 6:36 PM


MECHANICSBURG — If the PIAA believes five transfers gave the Aliquippa football team a competitive advantage, Quips coach Mike Warfield wants to know how.

The school blitzed the PIAA with statistics about the five players’ limited contributions, the transient nature of the Aliquippa community and even the mismatch in roster size and athletic funding that the Quips will face once they’re forced up another classification by the competitive-balance rule.

In the end, the PIAA board wasn’t swayed.

The board voted Wednesday to uphold the PIAA’s earlier decision to make Aliquippa play football in Class 5A for the next two seasons. The board, which met in Mechanicsburg, heard testimony from Warfield, superintendent Phillip Woods and several others representing Aliquippa via Zoom.

Two years ago, Aliquippa successfully avoided a promotion by making similar arguments. But the PIAA tightened the appeal rules in the years since, leaving fewer ways for the Quips to avoid a promotion.

“Two years ago, there was more of an openness to accept some of the arguments regarding subjectivity and whether transfers should be considered a transfer or not,” PIAA chief operating officer Mark Byers said. “In this instance, because we included the definition of transfer as part of the rule now, it was something the board relied on in reaching a decision.”

Meaning, in the PIAA’s view, a transfer is a transfer. The Quips disagreed about the five students considered transfers.

“None of them came with athletic intent nor did they contribute to competitive balance,” said Aliquippa attorney Tina Miller, who argued that the rule doesn’t do what the PIAA alleges.

The rule promotes teams that have success in the state playoffs and add three or more transfers in a two-year period.

“The use of transfer stats is completely arbitrary,” Miller said. “Nothing connects transfers to the success of the team.”

The Quips certainly had success. They finished as the state Class 4A champion last season and the runner-up in 2022. But Warfield argued that the transfer part of the rule was broken, since the five transfers the Quips added provided no competitive edge.

Aliquippa shared with the board stats that showed the five transfers accounted for only six of the 1,132 points scored by the team in the past two seasons. They gained four of the team’s 7,056 rushing yards, and 136 of their 4,163 yards passing.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love all five of these kids,” Warfield said, but he emphasized that they weren’t the reason the Quips won the state championship.

“We’re not winning because of transfers,” said Warfield, who added that the rule made it seem like the Quips were doing something wrong.

The PIAA lists Aliquippa with 156 boys in grades 9-11, the grades used to determine classifications. Class 5A football includes schools with 424 to 619 boys.

Warfield cynically asked whether coaches should start timing transfers in the 40-yard dash before letting them join the team.

The PIAA heard appeals from six schools Wednesday. Five of the six were denied, with only Bishop Guilfoyle football successfully avoiding a promotion.

A number of the schools involved argued that certain students of theirs shouldn’t be considered as transfers for various reasons, which the PIAA largely disagree with.

“The transfer language we have works nine out of 10 times,” PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said. “But when it’s your school, now you don’t like it and you want to massage it because it doesn’t fit what your situation is.

“I think everyone unanimously would agree those kids by the definition were transfers. But then the second part (some schools want) becomes, ‘What’s the impact?’ When the board makes these types of glossary definitions, they can’t make qualitative decisions.”

Lombardi was excluded from board deliberations Wednesday since he oversaw the initial appeals earlier this month.

Byers, who oversaw the board’s discussions, noted that the rule has changed since its first writing. For example, no longer are health and safety concerns considered grounds for an appeal.

The board also wanted transfers to be clearly defined.

“I think what the board attempted in this latest iteration was to take out references to subjectivity,” Byers said. “It meets the definition of transfer or it does not.”

What frustrates Aliquippa most about the rule is that the team already was voluntarily playing up above its enrollment level before the PIAA created the competitive-balance rule. The rule moved the Quips from Class 3A to 4A in 2020 and now to 5A.

Woods argued that the rule disproportionately impacts lower-income communities such as Aliquippa, which has a more transient population.

The high school has 302 students, and over the past two years has seen 184 students transfer into the school, according to stats Aliquippa shared during its hearing. In that span, 153 students also withdrew.

“When you lose your job, you don’t move to South Fayette or Upper St. Clair because you can’t afford it,” Woods said. “Aliquippa is a sanctuary city for families (in financial distress) that need support.”

State Rep. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver County), an outspoken critic of the PIAA and its competitive-balance rule, shared his contempt for the Aliquippa decision in a statement Wednesday night.

“The PIAA decision is disappointing, but not surprising,” Matzie said. “While non-boundary private schools recruit players from all over the United States and rural co-ops exploit known — but never closed — loopholes in their policies, a small, struggling, urban school district is punished for striving for excellence by the very body tasked with ensuring fairness.”

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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