Coaches wish PIAA team track title could be decided in playoff format like WPIAL

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Thursday, May 25, 2023 | 4:58 PM


It takes a team effort to win a WPIAL team track title, but that’s not necessarily true for winning a state title.

A school with one superstar athlete can sometimes take home a PIAA team trophy. So some WPIAL coaches wish the state might someday adopt the WPIAL team tournament model, however unlikely.

Count North Allegheny coach John Neff among them after his Tigers swept the WPIAL Class 3A boys and girls team titles this season.

“I wish (the team tournament) kept going,” Neff said. “I wish you’d go on to a state semifinal and then there was a state final. Look at how many kids contributed to winning (a WPIAL title). It’s not just going to be a couple of hammers in the sprinting and jumping events. So many people can take ownership.”

The PIAA team champion instead is decided at the state individual meet in Shippensburg. The team whose individual athletes accumulate the most points over two days is crowned the PIAA team champion.

The Moon girls won the PIAA Class 3A team title last spring on the strength of then-senior Mia Cochran, who won the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races. She was the only girl from her team to place at states.

“If you go back years, when Clinton Davis was around with Steel Valley (in the early 1980s), they didn’t win a dual meet all year … yet they crushed the state championship with five kids,” said Ed Helbig, Baldwin’s longtime coach and chairman of the WPIAL track committee.

The WPIAL decided in 1981 to create a separate tournament to crown team champions. The idea among league administrators then was that the team champion should be decided by depth of talent and coaching strength.

“So many kids are able to say: ‘I did that. If it wasn’t for me, things would have been different today,’” Neff said.

Currently, the top two teams in each section qualify for the WPIAL tournament, which has two rounds. Statewide, it’s a unique endeavor. The WPIAL is the only PIAA district that holds a team tournament for track, Helbig said, which makes the idea of someday adding a PIAA tournament far less likely.

“They do it for wrestling,” Helbig said. “There’s a hiatus of matches while they’re involved in that (team) championship. I don’t know where in the (track) schedule that could happen, but I think it would be great.”

The WPIAL team finals were May 9. The Greensburg Central Catholic boys and Quaker Valley girls won the 2A titles.

“It’s funny, I used to hate it,” said Mt. Lebanon coach Drew Haberberger, whose boys finished second to North Allegheny in this year’s 3A final. Haberberger is originally from Kane, a member of PIAA District 9.

“I came down here and I heard about it and said, ‘This is crazy,’” he said. “But it’s kind of cool because you really have to be creative, because you don’t just put everybody out there and see what happens.”

Still, not everyone is a fan of the team tournament idea. The competition adds one or two more taxing meets to an already crowded stretch in the late-season WPIAL schedule, and many of the same teams contend every year.

Since 1993, nobody besides North Allegheny, Hempfield, Butler and Norwin has won a WPIAL 3A girls title.

The format makes it tough for teams with a smaller roster to compete. Others have questioned the true value of crowing a dual-meet champion in what’s traditionally an individual sport.

“People say that it doesn’t matter that much, but I wish they could see how kids react to it,” Norwin coach Tim Van Horn said. “I’m a big football guy. I like the team atmosphere, and that’s how we build it up.”

Helbig said the WPIAL track committee has discussed condensing its team tournament to one round by including only section champions. Shrinking the field would leave some good second-place teams at home, but also could slim the event to one day.

Regardless, Helbig is optimistic that the WPIAL team event is here to stay.

“I like it from the standpoint that it shows who has the best team overall,” he said. “I would really like to see that happen (across the state), but I doubt it ever will.”

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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