After Year 1 of six-classifications system, many pleased with increased parity
Jeannette coach Marcus Clarkson wasn't sure WPIAL baseball could handle six classifications, worried that expansion would leave the competition too watered down.
The past few months changed his mind.
Today, there are championship T-shirts for sale in Jeannette, six weeks after his Jayhawks celebrated the WPIAL Class A baseball title. But that victory alone isn't what caused the longtime coach to reconsider six classes.
After years spent battling schools with larger enrollments and larger rosters, these new classifications seemed more equitable.
“It was a fair fight,” said Clarkson, a 1992 Jeannette graduate who has coached Jayhawks baseball for 16 years. “At this point, we're playing with the teams that we're supposed to be playing.”
When the PIAA board of directors voted to expand football, basketball, baseball and softball to six classifications, the decision was criticized by many around the WPIAL. This was the first school year for the expanded format, and some of their concerns proved to be valid, with longer travel for section games and longtime rivalries broken.
But for many, it wasn't all bad.
The reduction in class disparity was celebrated by some. For example, after realignment, Jeannette became the third-largest school in WPIAL Class A baseball with 104 boys in grades nine through 11. The new Class A maximum was 112 boys, down from 144 last year. In this more-balanced Class A, the Jayhawks defeated rival Greensburg Central Catholic (100 boys) in the WPIAL finals for their first title.
Six classes wasn't the reason Jeannette won with its 20-player roster, but Clarkson said it probably provided a clearer path by pushing 2016 champion Serra Catholic (141 boys), OLSH (134) and some other larger schools to Class 2A.
“Yeah, we didn't get to face a couple of those teams that knocked us out in previous years,” he said, “but I still think it was pretty competitive.”
The six-class expansion didn't solve the enrollment disparity at the top, where the state's largest Class 6A schools hold a 1,000-person edge over competitors, nor did it address the heated public vs. private school debate.
But PIAA administrators said their motivation to stretch teams over six classes (or four in soccer) was to create less disparity between the largest and smallest schools in each classification. Also, the decision would let more teams compete in the district and state playoffs — and maybe win a championship.
Consider, with six playoff brackets, the WPIAL had 153 baseball and softball teams participate in the postseason this season, up from 124 in 2016. WPIAL soccer jumped from 95 to 126 teams. WPIAL basketball saw a smaller increase from 147 to 156.
WPIAL football, with 64 qualifiers, did not change.
“I like the six classes because it evens the playing field out a little bit more,” Elizabeth Forward football coach Michael Collodi said. “When we were in the old Class AAA, we were like the second smallest. With the realignment, we're now one of the largest Class AAA schools.”
Elizabeth Forward, with 282 boys, shared a conference with Thomas Jefferson (355) and Trinity (390) until this past fall.
“We were so small,” Collodi said. “We're graduating 180 kids, and we're going against places that were graduating 350. It's hard. They've got a lot more boys to pick from. We might have had 40 or 50 kids on our roster, but across the field they have 75 or 80.”
There remains an enormous 500-person difference in male enrollment between North Allegheny (1,071) and Shaler (565) in Class 6A football, but the five smaller WPIAL football classes have more manageable gaps of 120, 107, 122, 59 and 82 boys between the largest and smallest schools.
The cut lines that separated classes weren't kind to everyone, but others clearly benefited from the expansion.
Valley boys basketball went winless in 2015-16 in a Class AAA section that included Hampton (420 boys), Mars (396), Knoch (346) and Highlands (324). In the new six-class format, those larger schools moved to Class 5A, and Valley (226 boys) joined Class 4A. As a result, Valley qualified for the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2010.
“You never want to make excuses,” Valley coach Mark Faulx said. “In my mind, we were going to find a way to be competitive in the classification we were in. However, after the change, it certainly seems there is a more level playing field.”