Pirates team doctor Patrick DeMeo among witnesses called by Aliquippa in lawsuit against PIAA

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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | 9:12 PM


Renowned orthopedic surgeon Patrick DeMeo, while testifying for Aliquippa in its lawsuit against the PIAA, said he wanted to see some numbers.

“Show me the data,” said DeMeo, who wondered how the PIAA decided its competitive-balance rule doesn’t increase health risks for the teams forced to play against larger schools.

“I don’t know how you can reach a conclusion without data,” said DeMeo, reinforcing one of Aliquippa’s key arguments in a daylong hearing Tuesday in a Beaver County courtroom.

The Aliquippa School District is asking Common Pleas Judge James Ross to issue an injunction and reverse a PIAA decision that’s moving the Quips football team to Class 5A for the next two seasons.

The court, over the span of nearly six hours, heard testimony from Aliquippa football coach Mike Warfield and two orthopedic surgeons, DeMeo and Dr. Stephen Hribar, before adjourning for the day. The hearing resumes Wednesday morning with more Aliquippa witnesses. PIAA administrators Bob Lombardi and Mark Byers were expected to testify in the afternoon.

Aliquippa attorney Tina Miller had DeMeo and Hribar detail concerns they had about the small-school football team competing in the state’s second-largest classification.

DeMeo heads the orthopedic surgery department for Allegheny Health Network and is a team physician for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He testified that forcing a team to play again an opponent with three or four times more students is risky.

“Anything that causes athletes injuries causes me concern,” said DeMeo, pointing out that Aliquippa’s players would be on the field for more snaps than opponents with deeper rosters.

DeMeo said studies link fatigue to increases in injuries. He also testified that freshmen and sophomores are more susceptible to concussions, noting that the Quips would use more underclassmen than opponents.

PIAA attorneys Dana Chilson and Rochelle Koerbel frequently pushed back against the doctor’s testimony as speculation about the future. Koerbel countered that DeMeo was speaking in “generalities,” not specifics related to Aliquippa.

However, health and safety risks have remained Aliquippa’s top argument against the competitive-balance rule. The PIAA uses the rule to promote teams that have success in the state playoffs and add a certain number of transfers.

Miller, as Aliquippa’s attorney, tried to poke holes in a PIAA ruling that the school has labeled “arbitrary and capricious.” She said the school district filed Right to Know requests seeking all information regarding studies, research or data used by the PIAA to create the Competition Formula.

Those request came back empty, Warfield said in testimony.

DeMeo cited a study from North Carolina that found a 20% higher rate of injuries in the highest classification of football compared to the lowest.

“There is no statewide injury collection system (in Pennsylvania), so it’s impossible to get that data,” DeMeo said.

The PIAA has cited Aliquippa’s success on the field as evidence that moving to a higher classification won’t put the team in danger. The Quips have reached the PIAA finals three years in a row, winning state Class 4A titles last year and in 2021.

Koerbel questioned whether the Quips were the ones putting their opponents at risk in lopsided games, but Aliquippa’s advocates argued there’s no correlation between a score and injuries.

What bothers Aliquippa supporters most is that the team was already playing two classes above its actual enrollment before the PIAA adopted the competitive-balance rule. The Quips had a Class A enrollment in recent years, and now qualifies for 2A.

“We already had the competitive spirit before their competitive formula,” Warfield said.

The PIAA in 2020 moved the Quips from Class 3A to 4A. The football team avoided a promotion to 5A in 2022, in part by appealing on health and safety grounds, but not this time.

Aliquippa’s appeal was denied by the PIAA board in January.

Warfield testified that he believed the PIAA had rewritten the rule to specifically target Aliquippa, a characterization PIAA attorneys rejected while questioning the six-year coach.

“It has changed so many times,” Warfield said. “And it changes each time on an argument we made.”

Hribar, an orthopedic surgeon and acting chief medical officer at AHN Grove City, has worked as Aliquippa’s team doctor since 2016. He testified to seeing an increase in injuries since the PIAA moved Aliquippa to 4A, citing at least a dozen “significant injures” last season.

Removing health and safety as ground for appeal was a mistake, he said.

“That rule should never be looked at without serious consideration about the safety of our young athletes,” he added.

PIAA attorneys questioned Hribar on whether Aliquippa’s opponents had more or less injuries. Hribar said he didn’t know, but like DeMeo, also pushed for statewide research into injuries.

“Let’s do the studies,” he said.

Day one included several references to Southern Columbia, a school that’s reached the state finals every year since 2015. The Tigers won eight of the past nine titles in Class 2A, yet haven’t been affected by the PIAA rule because of a lack of transfers.

There were also discussions about Imhotep Charter and Bishop McDevitt, which Warfield called “schools without zip codes.”

Warfield testified that his team gained no competitive edge from the five transfers added before the 2022 and ’23 seasons, since most of them didn’t play.

Chilson later tried to question Warfield about seven transfers the football team added in recent weeks, but the judge stopped her.

“We’re getting far afield,” he said.

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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