Public school criticism of state basketball playoffs ‘sour grapes,’ says PIAA director

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Monday, March 28, 2022 | 1:30 AM


Traditional public schools won only two of the 12 state basketball titles celebrated this weekend in Hershey, the fewest since the PIAA expanded the sport to six classifications in 2016.

The 10 others were won by private and charter schools, leading some public school coaches to question the fairness of the state tournament — criticism that the PIAA’s top administrator viewed partially as “sour grapes.”

Aliquippa’s Nick Lackovich, New Castle’s Ralph Blundo and Quaker Valley’s Mike Mastroianni were among the WPIAL basketball coaches in Hershey who called for the PIAA to reevaluate its current format that makes traditional public schools compete with so-called nonboundary schools.

“It would help if schools with boundaries don’t have to play ones that don’t have boundaries,” said Lackovich, after Aliquippa lost, 76-58, in the Class 3A boys final to Devon Prep of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

“I’m not crying. They beat us,” Lackovich added. “… But at the end of the day, that’s not fair. You want to complain and fight about Aliquippa playing 2A, 3A, 4A or 5A in football, but you don’t want to address something as simple as this staring you in the face?

“This is not fair.”

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said he recognized this was a disappointing weekend for most public school finalists but insisted the year-to-year results are cyclical. Four traditional public schools won PIAA basketball titles in 2021, five in ’19, six in ’18 and three in ’17. The championships weren’t played in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“You see how things go in athletics — they go in waves or peaks and valleys,” Lombardi said Saturday at Giant Center. “The (private and charter school) teams were better today. That doesn’t mean they’re a better program. Today, they played better. I think some of it, I hate to say, is sour grapes.”

Lombardi also laid partial responsibility on coaches who lost.

“I’ve seen some schools do a little better job coaching in the second half and making adjustments to really change games around,” he said. “I’m not sure other ones did it so well.”

The Neshannock girls and the Plymouth Whitemarsh girls were the only traditional public schools to win titles this year. Philadelphia Catholic League teams alone won six titles with the Neumann-Goretti girls and boys each celebrating championships. Two PCL teams, Roman Catholic and Archbishop Wood, met in the Class 6A boys final.

The Catholic League combined has won 34 PIAA titles since 2009.

“Believe me, it’s not sour grapes,” Lackovich said, “because I’ve been on both ends of this thing. I’ve been on the winning end, and I’ve been on the losing end. … It’s staring everyone right in the face. You can’t have guys from different areas (on one team). All of my guys are from within a mile of the school.”

Imhotep Charter, a member of the Philadelphia public league, won the Class 5A boys final over New Castle, 54-39. The state title was the eighth for Imhotep, all since 2009.

Afterward, Blundo said there is an “inequity” in the state playoffs that needs fixed.

“NBA teams don’t play (NCAA) Division I basketball teams,” Blundo said. “Division I teams that have scholarships don’t play Division III teams for championships, because circumstances are different. The ability to obtain players is different. It just is. So you have to acknowledge it and handle it because it hurts kids.”

Mastroianni talked briefly with Lombardi as Quaker Valley walked off the court following the Class 4A boys final Thursday. The previously undefeated Quakers lost to Neumann-Goretti, 93-68.

Mastroianni wasn’t critical of the Neumann-Goretti coach or players but rather the current PIAA rules. The Saints now have defeated a WPIAL opponent six times in the state finals, including five traditional public schools.

“They’re playing within the rules,” Mastroianni said. “I just think we should reevaluate, and I think a lot of people do.”

Many public school coaches have said they’d like to see public and private schools divided into separate tournaments, a mission some advocates previously lobbied for without success.

“Let them do their own thing,” Lackovich said. “Then you’d see a more balanced, a more fair (playoffs). You’re not going to see domination by the Philly schools.”

But the PIAA consistently has labeled the idea of separate tournaments a nonstarter, saying it’s impossible under current state law that requires all schools to be treated equally as members.

“If the legislature would like to change the law, we’ll be glad to follow whatever they say,” Lombardi said. “But we’re not going to try to separate (schools) and be hit with a discrimination suit — and that’s on the doorstep.”

The PIAA has taken that stance since at least 2018, when a group of public school administrators tried to force the PIAA to make a change. At the time, it was understood Catholic schools would oppose any move.

“We have good information that if there would be any type of separation, that there would be immediate legal action,” Lombardi said.

The PIAA implemented a few rule changes in recent years meant to limit teams from reloading their rosters, including a competitive-balance formula that promotes teams that both experience postseason success and add transfers. The formula, which forced Aliquippa football to 4A, is used to determine classifications in football and basketball.

The PIAA also added a one-year postseason ineligibility for transfers and implemented restrictions on athletes switching schools midseason.

Public school coaches have argued that’s not enough, but Lombardi said he doesn’t agree with them that nonboundary schools in general have an inherent advantage.

“I do not,” Lombardi said, “and I would like to see their proof.”

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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