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Philly ball to impact PIAA hoops

| Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003

Through the years, followers of Philadelphia high school basketball have smirked when winners of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association tournaments were proclaimed state champions.

Philadelphia is not part of the PIAA, but is most assuredly a part of the state. The first item is about to change. The school board in Philadelphia is expected soon to give final approval to an application for PIAA membership for the city's public schools, which in turn is expected to be acted upon by the PIAA board at a March 21 meeting.

The Philadelphia schools, forming District 12, would become PIAA members in all sports for the 2003-04 school year, but would not become eligible for inter-district play until the 2004-05 school year. It is basketball in which Philadelphia is expected to prove strongest, and the cynics are saying traditional PIAA Quad-A schools (most of the Philadelphia schools will compete in that class) have a two-year window of opportunity to win more state hoops titles. After that, just mail the trophies to Philadelphia.

This talk does not amuse Kirk Smallwood, whose Harrisburg boys team won the 2002 state championship and is considered the favorite to repeat in 2003 despite having a 25-game winning streak ended the past week by Carlisle, in overtime.

"I'm not of the belief that any previous state champions should have asterisks beside them because Philadelphia was not involved," Smallwood said. "We welcome the competition. We want to put to bed the notion of the state championship being incomplete.

"Rather than chase myths, we'll all get an opportunity to play."

This Philadelphia-PIAA debate is old news for Smallwood and Harrisburg.

"We heard it in '98 (after winning a state Quad-A championship)," he said. "So, in '99, we played the City Catholic League champion, St. John Neumann, and we won."

The previous week's USA Today regional rankings had Harrisburg 8th in the East. The top Philadelphia school was a private school, St. Joseph's Prep, at 10th.

That Smallwood would be comfortable with Philadelphia public schools joining the PIAA is understandable based on the strength of his program.

But Hempfield coach Bill Swan, whose 19-2 boys were ranked seventh in a statewide poll last week, also welcomes the impending addition.

This is despite the fact that schools from the western half of the state already are struggling to compete for state gold. They have won just two Quad-A boys titles since the class began in 1984. Those were Erie Cathedral Prep in 1993 and Ringgold in 1995. With the addition of Philadelphia schools, a state title would seem to be that much less attainable for western teams.

No problem, said Swan.

"They're part of our state. I think that's always been a knock people have had. You might be a state champion, but Philadelphia was not involved," he said. "I might eat these words if Philly wins it every year, but not yet. Now, I think it's the right thing."

As for the potential effect on his program, Swan was blunt: "If we get there (the state final), we'd play the L.A. Lakers for all we care."

Roxanne B. Moses, a sports writer for the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, does the paper's statewide basketball rankings, which for now are limited to PIAA schools. Harrisburg was No. 1 the past week.

"They're very good," said Moses, who hails from New York City and has covered top high school teams there. She is eager to have Philadelphia schools added to the PIAA mix.

"Any time you have more horses in the race, and those horses have certain pedigrees, I think it's healthy. It's competition."

One of the concerns regarding the Philadelphia schools is that their open-enrollment policy differs from PIAA guidelines. But, Melissa Nash of the PIAA stressed, "They're aware they will have make to make changes. They will abide by our bylaws."

A final thought on the subject. In 1976, West Philadelphia was in the midst of a 30-0 season that included a mythical national championship. The star of that talent-laden team was Eugene Banks.

The West Philadelphia team played Brashear, which the previous season had won the state championship in the PIAA's top classification as Fifth Avenue, in a December tournament in Johnstown. Brashear, with Sam Clancy as a star player, took West Philadelphia to the buzzer before losing.

By the way, Brashear didn't win the state title again in 1977. Fox Chapel did.

The point is, even one of the all-time great teams in Philadelphia history was played competitively by a traditional PIAA school. There's no reason that couldn't be the case in 2004 and beyond.

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