Private School Recruiting: Time to level the competition in PA

2+-+Souderton%E2%80%99s+Jalen+White+%287%29+is+hit+in+the+backfield+by+St.+Joseph+Prep%E2%80%99s+Josiah+Trotter+%2840%29+during+their+PIAA-6A+semifinal+at+Cardinal+O%27Hara+on+Saturday%2C+Nov.+21%2C+2020.+%28James+Beaver%2FFor+MediaNews+Group%29

James Beaver/For MediaNews Group

2 – Souderton’s Jalen White (7) is hit in the backfield by St. Joseph Prep’s Josiah Trotter (40) during their PIAA-6A semifinal at Cardinal O’Hara on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (James Beaver/For MediaNews Group)

Nearly eight million kids across the country play a high school sport. Those kids practice rigorously with the goal of being able to win the biggest prize possible; a state championship. In the state of Pennsylvania, this aspiration is getting smaller and smaller for many public schools. A competitive imbalance in team sports has allowed for private or “non boundary” schools to build dynasties and win a very disproportionate amount of championships. This has become a problem and needs a solution immediately. 

The unbalanced nature in sports stems from all public schools having set limits to where students can live if they want to attend the school. If a student lives outside of the district limits they will go to the next closer public school, instead of the one of their choice. Private schools, however, are able to bring kids from wherever they please, even if the student comes from outside state lines. Due to this ability, private schools have consistently recruited kids to their schools to help form “superteams”.  This sets up a playoff format where to win a state title, teams must defeat a team of multiple kids from outside state lines and others who were recruited from all over, while only having kids from within a few miles of their high school. Clearly this is an obvious benefit to private schools who only make up roughly 20% of the state’s schools but have won 77% of the championships in basketball and 42% in football. 

The PIAA (Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) has tried to correct this by instituting two new rules but neither have yet to prove any effectiveness. The first change implemented was a “separate playoff” format. This format saw  public schools and private schools being lined up on different sides of the bracket, then competing in the state finals. It was “public school champion” vs “private school champion” for the state title. The new format had the same result with private schools handedly winning state championships. Another policy that was implemented was a success scale that would move up a team if they get too dominant within a single classification. The only problem is that the biggest problem is in the biggest classification. 

Take St Joseph’s Prep. Everyone knows the name if you live in Pennsylvania and follow high school football, even around the country as well, as they are ranked the number four team in the nation. They have won six state championships, including three straight (2018-2020), in the last decade alone. They have won the six state titles by a combined score of 263-104, including this past year, winning the state title 62-13 over Central York. They also won the state semifinal over Souderton 51-43. The score was close due to Prep having to pull their starters and a running clock since the deficit at one point was 51-7. So the question posed, is it fair or do they play by a separate set of rules. Souderton football coach Ed Gallagher would argue very clearly there is a different set of rules. 

“It’s clear that there is a different set of rules here,” said Gallagher. “Private schools can be in the PIAA, I have no problem with that but whether we need separate championships or something like that, something needs to change.” 

Souderton was one of the best public schools in the state, having a perfect record coming into the semi-final against St Joes. Also being one week removed from winning the District 1 championship over Pennridge, there was hype but it was bittersweet knowing who they would have to face next. 

“That win over Pennridge was special,” said Gallagher. “I knew in the back of my mind that we would have to play [St Joe’s Prep] the next week though. I had to try and prepare a team of kids for a game against a team that we simply couldn’t beat.” 

Private schools also claim that they don’t recruit for athletics, rather that the student has transferred due to academic reasons. One clear example of recruiting that could be looked at is from this past year’s Prep team. One athlete for Prep was someone who went through a local public school district up until he got recruited by Prep after his 8th grade year. Still living in a suburban community in Montgomery County, which would clearly be outside Philadelphia School district limits, he commuted everyday to Prep. Another case saw a current freshman, who won’t be named for athletic and privacy reasons, at a local public school also experience recruiting from schools like Prep and Roman Catholic. 

“They would call me and my family a lot,” said the freshman. “It is appealing to me honestly, like I can’t lie. Me and my dad just made the decision to remain at [my current school].” 

Private schools tend to jump on recruits as early as possible which usually means the end of the student athlete’s 8th grade sports season. That was the same case for the freshman. 

“It was the beginning of 8th grade for me,” said the freshman. “I had coaches from a couple of the schools come to my games to scout me in person. We would talk for a bit after the game and they’d usually try and get me to come tour their school at some point.”  

St Joe’s and other private schools use this method to restock their team every year and have multiple 4 star and 5 star recruits on their roster. For reference, St Joe’s Prep had 4 four star recruits on this past year’s team with a total school enrollment of only 885. North Penn, one of the largest public high schools in the football powerhouse of Pennsylvania, with an average enrollment of 3,000 students, has had 1 four star recruit in their history, which goes back to 2000,. When you are able to go out and hand select the athletes you bring in, things like this will happen. 

Without any context, this sounds like a college recruiting a student. That is the exact problem we are getting at though. Slowly, but surely, the high school sports scene is becoming too much like college. 14 and 15 year olds are consistently being scouted and being put in a position where they need to pick a school. This is unnecessary pressure on a middle schooler and very much unwarranted. The culture of sports on all levels is supposed to be having fun with teammates and should be an extension of the academic experience,  rather than switching schools and ring chasing with sports as the primary focus.

“It’s really changing the culture of high school sports as a whole,” said Gallagher. “Players think they need to go transfer to a better school to play a sport. It’s taking away spots from the kids that have been in the same school or district, when they bring in recruits.” 

It’s really changing the culture of high school sports as a whole”

— Ed Gallagher, Head Football Coach, Souderton HS

The problem also stretches into other sports such as basketball where nationally ranked Archbishop Wood is steamrolling schools. Both the boys and girls team are in the midst of runs to the state championship. The Boys team especially has been very dominant and sees multiple players fielding D1 offers regularly. They’ve been able to pull in people into their program and build a top 10 team in the country. Once again leading to a private school being able to dominate any type of public competition that comes their way.

Non boundary schools overwhelmingly take over basketball championship games with ease, such as in 2018. The Sharon Tigers, a public school, went into the 4A title game with a record of 27-2 and in the midst of a 24 game winning streak. Before the game, the Tigers had scored over 90 points twice and had a season low of only 48 points. Then they faced Imhotep Charter School, who can openly recruit. Imhotep beat the Tigers handedly 71-35. Imhotep had six players that had Division 1 offers from all around the city. It was not a fair matchup whatsoever, but it was allowed because of PIAA’s reluctance to do anything. 

While public pressure has been very high on PIAA to separate private and public schools, PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi has held firm and cites a 1972 Bill as his reason for not being able to. The Bill has one single line that has been the backbone of the argument for PIAA. 

“Private schools shall be permitted, if otherwise qualified, to be members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.”

This line within the bill states that private schools have the right to be included within PIAA. Which is fair, but the bill does not state that PIAA is not allowed to have separate playoffs or give private schools their own classification, which is what needs to be done. 

“They wanted private schools to be treated the same as every other school,” said Lombardi in a 2018 press conference. “To put them in a separate classification, to me, would not be equal treatment and would be contrary to the law.”

Rep. Aaron Bernstine introduced House Bill 1600 which was meant to change the format to separate playoffs as well as amend other PIAA rulings. The Bill did not end up making any headway and PIAA still has this massive problem on their hands. 

High school sports isn’t seeing something new. The problem is expanding and becoming more open than ever, but nothing is being done. Coaches are getting less and less motivated in winning state titles due to the imbalance being presented. The PIAA knows the issue and is ignoring it due to a vague ruling made almost a half century ago. The change needs to be implemented before we see a massive disbandment or schools decide to exit from PIAA as a whole.