Aliquippa wins PIAA appeal, remains in Class 4A football

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Wednesday, January 26, 2022 | 5:40 PM


Add another win to Aliquippa’s record.

The PIAA board on Wednesday accepted Aliquippa’s appeal and agreed to leave the Quips in Class 4A football for the next two seasons, a victory that let the reigning state champions avoid a promotion to 5A under the PIAA’s competitive-balance rule.

The board voted 21-4 in Aliquippa’s favor.

The online hearing was contentious at times and lasted more than 90 minutes, twice as long as the PIAA had initially allotted. Aliquippa had a multi-pronged approach, arguing about player safety, economic disparity and questioning specifics about the wording of the rule itself.

Along with Aliquippa superintendent Phillip Woods and principal Stacey Alexander, the PIAA board heard from football coach Mike Warfield, retired NFL player Ty Law, team physician Dr. Stephen Hribar and athletic trainer Mike McGarvey.

“I’m very satisfied that the board listened to us,” said Woods, but he didn’t consider the decision entirely a win.

Woods was pleased the Quips avoided Class 5A, but said he was disappointed they weren’t moved to 3A, as requested in their appeal. Aliquippa’s enrollment qualifies for Class A football. The Quips voluntarily played up in Class 3A before the competitive-balance ruled forced them to 4A in 2020.

“I’m really thankful that the PIAA realized having a 1A team play 5A and 6A teams is outrageous,” Woods said. “But this wasn’t like a negotiation where you go high, I go low. The bottom line is we’re talking about player safety … and we’re still a 1A team being forced to play up three classifications.”

The PIAA board on Wednesday also approved an appeal filed by Wyomissing football, which had a hearing immediately after Aliquippa’s. Wyomissing remained in Class 3A.

PIAA president Frank Majikes said the board was swayed by the schools’ testimony and added that the PIAA likely will re-examine the competitive-balance rule.

“We will take that testimony and move on,” Majikes said, “possibly re-evaluate and see where we’re going for the future.”

Attorneys representing Aliquippa argued that the rule as currently written doesn’t specifically address situations such as Aliquippa’s, where the team already voluntarily plays in a higher classification. Aliquippa was playing up two classes before the competitive-balance rule took effect.

“I believe our board will be discussing that issue at our next meeting or future meetings,” Majikes said.

Those testifying for Aliquippa said forcing a school with 118 boys in Grades 9-11 to play football against opponents with far more students and larger rosters would be unsafe. In comparison, Hempfield, the largest school in WPIAL Class 5A next season, has 553 boys.

“Yes, we do have a lot of talent there … but if you look at the pure numbers, we’re an anomaly,” said Law, a 1992 Aliquippa graduate and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I don’t think we should be punished for the success that we have had on the field. We’re not afraid of competition. But when you’re talking about a school like Aliquippa, I think it’s equivalent to … asking Geneva College to play Penn State week in and week out.”

The competitive-balance formula promotes teams that have postseason success and added more than three transfers in a two-year period. Aliquippa met both criteria. The Quips won the PIAA Class 4A title this past fall, reached the WPIAL Class 4A finals in 2020 and added eight transfers, according to the PIAA.

Aliquippa attorneys Jay Reisinger and Tina Miller attacked the rule itself, insisting there is a discrepancy between how the rule is written and how it’s implemented. Reisinger said the rule doesn’t specifically address instances of voluntary upgrades.

In those cases, the PIAA has moved teams up from their current competition level instead of their true enrollment level, but Reisinger argued that the rule doesn’t include that language. Therefore, Aliquippa should’ve been counted as a Class A school and moved up from there, Reisinger said, an interpretation of the rule that PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi disagreed with during the hearing.

The hearing later turned contentious when Lombardi and PIAA attorney Alan Boynton highlighted Aliquippa’s on-field success, saying the team outscored opponents by more than 400 points last season. The Quips went 13-1 last season with an average margin of 39 points.

Lombardi mentioned to Warfield how his roster had multiple players on the all-state team and freshman running back Tiqwai Hayes was the Class 4A player of the year.

“That’s not part of the formula,” Warfield said.

“It sounds like almost crocodile tears, your complaining, when you’re humiliating your opponents and blowing them out,” said Boynton, the PIAA attorney. “Is it your position that your team would not be competitive at 5A?”

“My position is health and safety of our kids,” Warfield responded, before adding: “If that was the case, possibly, yes. … But if we’re just basing the rule on winning, or if we can win in 5A or a higher class, that should apply to other schools.”

Warfield attempted to alleviate the board’s questions about the eight transfers added over the past two seasons by explaining how each arrived at the school.

He said three transfers were Aliquippa students in grade school, moved away and transferred back. One of the others came with family from out of state and another moved in from out of the country. One bounced between multiple districts before enrolling at Aliquippa, one arrived after a family separation and another was ineligible all season.

“Five of the eight are either graduating or won’t be part of the team (next season),” Warfield said.

Woods, the school’s superintendent, provided the PIAA with a chart comparing the roster sizes and school budgets of WPIAL Class 5A, 4A and 3A schools to Aliquippa’s, which was by far the smallest.

Aliquippa has a $26 million district budget, said Woods, who listed Fox Chapel at $104 million and Pine-Richland at $96 million. If moved to Class 5A, Aliquippa would’ve shared a conference with those teams next season. Among WPIAL Class 4A schools, Woods listed Belle Vernon smallest at $48 million.

Woods noted that Aliquippa has only one athletic trainer who works part-time.

“We’re not gaining or even coming close to a competitive advantage (in Class 4A),” Woods said. “If anything, we’re being disadvantaged by being asked to compete against schools that have this amount of resource.”

Aliquippa had its initial appeal denied on paperwork alone earlier this month, but Lombardi said Wednesday’s decision proved the PIAA process worked.

“It’s a two-phased process,” Lombardi said. “The schools have the ability to come in to the board and make their case.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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