When WPIAL makes realignment decisions aiming for competitive balance, critics emerge

Tuesday, March 12, 2024 | 1:15 AM

WPIAL athletic directors received a survey from one of their colleagues Monday, seeking feedback about how the league makes its sections and schedules.

The online survey by McGuffey athletic director Ed Dalton, a critic of the WPIAL’s recent fall realignment, asked whether schools favored sections based on geography, competitive balance or a combination of the two.

With 90 responses in about an hour, Dalton said, the results showed more than 85% of his survey participants favored geography (45.6%) or geography with competitive balance (41.1%). The least popular option was sections determined by straight competitive balance.

“People want to play (opponents) within their geography,” Dalton said. “They’ll accept competitive balance if it’s within their geography, but we don’t want to be USC and UCLA in the Big Ten of high school sports.”

The WPIAL again used geography as a basis for its section alignments, but in the updated versions released last month, it chose to move some teams from one section to another while trying to better balance the strength of the groups.

Dalton questioned the data — or lack thereof — used to make those moves.

“Without data, everything is just an opinion,” he said.

WPIAL administrator Vince Sortino, whose duties as chief operating officer include overseeing schedules, said the league office has received very few complaints about the new alignments. He noted that the WPIAL board and a subcommittee looked into scheduling methods, and they recommended that the league pursue better competitive balance.

“That’s why the fall alignments were done the way they were,” Sortino said. “Could things change for the winter and the spring sports? Things can always change moving forward, but as of right now, until someone gives us another directive, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Sortino said it’s tricky to create sections that both limit travel and are balanced in terms of section strength. For that reason, the WPIAL took a limited approach to competitive balance — meaning it impacted some sections more than others.

“It’s hard to do competitive balance with geography,” Sortino said. “You can’t do both.”

The WPIAL in February released updated section alignments for the 2024 and ’25 seasons for football, soccer, cross country, golf, field hockey, girls tennis and girls volleyball. Winter and spring sports alignments will be finalized in the coming months.

Most fall schedules are also released. Sortino said football schedules will be available Thursday.

“Out of all the sports programs in the fall, I’ve heard from two schools,” Sortino said. “You’re talking hundreds of schedules.”

Sortino heard from Dalton, who questioned whether the methods used by the WPIAL actually improved the overall competitive balance. Dalton wondered why the WPIAL doesn’t take a data-driven approach when moving teams around rather than rely on committee opinions.

In his email to athletic directors, Dalton pointed out that football teams in the Class 3A conference that now includes McGuffey have made 20 appearances in the WPIAL finals since 2001. He said teams in another 3A conference made no finals appearances in that span.

“I understand how difficult it is to be in charge,” Dalton said. “If you’re right, nobody cares. If you’re wrong, everybody is in line. But I do not think this is very well thought out.”

After winning a WPIAL soccer title, the South Fayette boys are moving to a new, more distant section, which disappoints coach Rob Eldridge. Rather than play in a section that surrounds the airport, the Lions join an eight-team group with Bethel Park, Trinity, Thomas Jefferson, McKeesport, Ringgold, Albert Gallatin and Laurel Highlands.

Competitive balance was the reason for the move.

“I thought the decision was made with haste and certainly not in the best interest of our student-athletes,” said Eldridge, who considered the increase in travel as detrimental to academics.

Arriving home at midnight is not ideal, he said, when first period at South Fayette starts at 7:05 a.m. Trips to the two Fayette County schools are around 60 miles each way.

“They’ve got to go home, try to get a meal in them, catch up on their studies and get three or four hours of sleep,” Eldridge said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The South Fayette team was equally disappointed to see rivalries end against some nearby schools. The Lions’ old section remained largely intact with Baldwin taking their open spot.

“Over the years, we’ve developed these really healthy rivalries,” Eldridge said. “Our kids travel strong to Montour, West A and Chartiers Valley. You’re taking that whole school spirit with the soccer program away. Our student body isn’t going to travel out to Albert Gallatin or even Thomas Jefferson.”

Dalton questioned why neighboring schools Trinity and Washington don’t share a boys soccer section and why Laurel Highlands and Uniontown were separated, as well.

Sortino said the sport-specific steering committees followed the recommendation of the WPIAL board, which was to seek better balance. He said the WPIAL won’t consider revamping any fall alignments now.

“I think there’s an impression out there that (WPIAL executive director) Scott Seltzer and I sit in the office and decide the alignments,” Sortino said. “Our committees do it.”

Eldridge said he believed most high school programs are cyclical, meaning this year’s wins don’t guarantee the same success in the future. South Fayette is a reigning WPIAL champion, but the Lions coach said that doesn’t mean they’ll certainly win again next fall.

“Parity naturally happens,” he said. “There are down years. We’re a pretty consistent program, but next year, we’re probably not going to be as strong as we were this year. Moving us around for that reason doesn’t make much sense.”

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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