A number of times in recent years, two teams from the Philadelphia area have met in a state basketball championship. If the PIAA basketball steering committee has its way, such matchups will be a thing of the past, starting in the 2016-17 season.
The PIAA basketball steering committee met Wednesday and voted, 8-5, to adopt a motion where the PIAA playoffs return to a true east-west format. In other words, teams from the east and west stay in separate brackets until the championship game, when the east meets the west for a state champion.
The steering committee is made up of a representative from each of the 12 districts around the state, and also the state rules interpreter. The committee's vote to adopt the motion doesn't mean the east-west bracket will happen. It is more a recommendation that the PIAA board of directors must approve at its May meeting. Often, the PIAA board will approve what a steering committee recommends, but not always. If the PIAA approves the recommendation, new brackets would go into effect for the 2016-17 season.
"I don't know how the [PIAA] board will handle this, but at least we got it this far," said Dan O'Neil, the WPIAL representative on the steering committee.
The switch back to the true east-west format would be a monumental change in the state playoffs. In order to understand the landscape of the playoffs, first some history.
Ever since the PIAA basketball championships started almost 100 years ago, the west and the east were in separate brackets. But that all changed in the 2004-05 season, when some eastern teams played on the western side of the bracket. So, you might have a team from Philadelphia playing a team from the WPIAL in the quarterfinals.
The reason for the change was complaints from eastern area schools and representatives of those districts. The east has more schools in some classifications and the east didn't think it was fair that the west and east had equal representation in the PIAA playoffs. The east felt it should get more teams in the classifications where it had more schools.
For example, in the PIAA Class AAAA boys tournament this year, the so-called "western" side of the bracket had 16 teams. But only seven were from the west. Nine teams from the east were in the western side. All 16 teams in the "eastern" bracket were from the east. The championship game turned out to be two teams from Philadelphia - Roman and Martin Luther King.
The brackets over the past decade have caused long road trips for teams. For example, in the Class AAA boys quarterfinals this year, New Castle played Archbishop Carroll of Philadelphia. The game was played at Chambersburg, about a four-hour drive for New Castle. But it's not just basketball. The PIAA doesn't have true east-west brackets in some other sports.
The lack of a true east-west bracket has hurt attendance. Teams sometimes have to drive three to four hours for a game in the middle of the week. The games draw only hundreds of fans. The brackets have also hurt attendance at the state championships because a number of the Philadelphia Public and Catholic League teams do not draw well. When they meet in the championship, attendance often isn't good.
For example, the Neumann-Goretti boys won the Class AAA title this year, playing against Archbishop Carroll. Both teams are from the Philadelphia Catholic League. It looked like Neumann-Goretti couldn't have had more than 100 or 150 fans.
O'Neil said new brackets might not necessarily have the same number of teams in the east and west brackets. That's fine. That's what should have been done all along.
If the east has more schools in a certain classification, they should have more teams in the PIAA playoffs. But why not just have, say, 24 teams in the eastern bracket and maybe 10 or 12 in the west. Shouldn't that make the east happy? The teams in the east simply play an extra round. Doesn't that make more sense than having eastern teams in the west, and having teams travel three to four hours for a playoff game on a school night?
"I think basically there is a philosophical debate, and that's the easiest way to say it," said O'Neil. "Do you want the two best teams playing in the state championship, even though it could be a replay of a district playoff game? Or do you want an eastern team playing a western team?"
The WPIAL supports true east-west brackets.
"You have a lot more fans and there seems to be more of an exciting draw when you have the east and the west playing among themselves until the championship," said O'Neil. "The way it is now, some of these playoff games end up being played in front of a couple hundred people. Nobody is there."
Of course, the true east-west brackets doesn't address what is the biggest issue in basketball these days, and that's the dominance of private, Catholic and charter schools at the championship level. That is a matter for the PIAA board to address and not the basketball steering committee.
You hear more and more calls from coaches, athletic directors and especially fans that there should be separate playoffs for public schools and private/parochial/charter schools. But rightly or wrongly, the PIAA isn't even looking down that path right now.
There has been a lot of talk within the PIAA about going to six classifications in football, and possibly other sports. A proposal had been made by District 9 chairman Bob Tonklin to switch football to six classes. The PIAA strategic planning committee met Wednesday, but the six classification idea is still very much in the talking stages.
What came out of the strategic planning committee meeting was that the PIAA will look at how schools have to count charter, cyber and home-school students. Currently, schools must count all of those students in their enrollment figures. The PIAA then makes classifications based on enrollment figures.
But the PIAA is looking at a plan where schools will only have to count 10 percent of charter, cyber and home-school students toward their enrollment figures. I'm not sure how that will affect many schools, but it could change what classification some schools are placed.