PIAA defends Aliquippa decision in letter to legislators; state Rep. Matzie sees ‘hit job’

Wednesday, February 28, 2024 | 6:39 PM

The PIAA in a letter to state legislators stood behind its decision to move the Aliquippa football team into a higher classification and rejected claims that the school district serves a more transient population than others.

The letter, sent to members of the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee, was shared Tuesday by state Rep. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver) along with a legislative proposal he’s writing that would add seats to the PIAA board of directors.

Matzie’s proposal would make the six state legislators on the oversight committee and the state secretary of education permanent voting members of the PIAA board.

“This legislation has been in the works for some time, but I felt the time was now — based on recent correspondence the PIAA sent on the premise of defending their indefensible competition formula,” Matzie said. “In reality, the correspondence was a hit job on one school, my school, Aliquippa. It’s abundantly clear that the PIAA would prefer to double down rather than work toward a better system. Their current system is not working, and their evaluation process is, frankly, lazy.”

The oversight committee was formed in 2004 and includes three state representatives and three state senators.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi declined comment.

The PIAA letter was provided to legislators as an overview of a competitive-balance formula that forces some successful teams to compete in a higher classification against opponents with larger enrollments. The rule moved the Aliquippa football team from Class 3A to 4A in 2020 and to 5A starting next fall.

In its letter, the PIAA defended the move by saying the Aliquippa football team has had a “tremendous competitive advantage over schools in their classification,” and noted that the team went 27-1 combined over the past two seasons and 40-2 over three years.

“Aliquippa has played in every district championship game since 2008 — at various classification levels — and has scored 1,132 points and allowed 394 points in the past two seasons,” the PIAA noted.

Without the competitive-balance rule, Aliquippa’s high school enrollment would qualify the Quips for 2A football. But the PIAA noted that football is the only fall sport offered for boys at Aliquippa, and that the team had 54 players on last season’s roster.

“This level of participation far exceeds turnout rates at schools of similar size, and puts Aliquippa well within a range to play ‘up’ in competition,” the letter said.

The PIAA analysis went further by counting the number of 240-pound players on the roster. It’s unclear in the letter why the PIAA staff chose that number, but it found Aliquippa had 11 players weighing more than 240 pounds on the 2022 roster and nine in 2023.

The team Aliquippa defeated in the state finals last fall, Dallas, “had only three similar players of 240 pounds and above,” the PIAA noted, “and Peters Township in the 5A classification championship game from the same PIAA district had only three players 240 pounds and above.”

Aliquippa football coach Mike Warfield along with school administrators have objected to the promotion on health and safety grounds. Matzie, whose legislative district includes Aliquippa, has long been a critic of the PIAA’s competitive-balance rule.

Matzie in January questioned whether the PIAA needed an “overhaul,” and proposed separate legislation that would analyze the policy, practices, finances and structure of the PIAA.

A number of Aliquippa’s advocates have argued that the competitive-balance rule unfairly impacts lower-income communities where residents are more transient.

The PIAA disputed that idea in its letter to legislators, citing a two-cycle total male enrollment of 274 and 13 transfers involving football players, which “equates to only 4.7% of their male enrollment” being transfer students.

“This dispels the notion, espoused in some corners, that Aliquippa’s families are more transient than many communities which transience should be taken into account when applying the Competition Formula,” the PIAA said.

However, the PIAA’s calculation excluded transfers of students not related to the football team when reaching that 4.7%.

The competitive-balance rule promotes football teams that have success in the state playoffs and added three or more transfers in a two-year span. Aliquippa won the state Class 4A title last season and was the runner-up in 2022. The team also added five transfers, according to the PIAA.

Aliquippa appealed its promotion to 5A and was denied by the PIAA board Jan. 24. Warfield has since said the school intended to take legal action.

The PIAA said in its letter that the competitive-balance rule “has worked remarkably well.” It added that the PIAA board feels there are no health and safety concerns when a highly successful team is moved up in classification, adding that such concerns “have not been implicated in any instance where a school is reclassified … and no data exists to suggest otherwise.”

The rule was adopted in 2018 and this is the third cycle of promotions, which take place every two years. The PIAA identified 56 fall sports teams for possible promotion under the rule this school year, but only 10 were moved to a higher classification following the appeal process.

“Everyone involved in interscholastic athletics understands the emotions that athletics produce,” the PIAA said, “but the simple fact is there is no punishment or ulterior motive in moving schools up in classification due to the competitive balance formula. Its purpose is to keep the playing field as level as possible for all member schools in 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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