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Benefits to 6-class expansion by PIAA disputed by some in WPIAL

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Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Latrobe players celebrate with head coach Matt Basciano after receiving their medals as the champion in the WPIAL Class 5A baseball championship at Wild Things Park, on Wednesday, May 31, 2017, in Washington.

The WPIAL administration fought relentlessly but unsuccessfully to stop the PIAA from adding classifications in football, basketball and other team sports.

But after a full school year under the new six-class system, the WPIAL could become an advocate for further expansion.

“If the rationale behind expansion was to provide more opportunities for more kids, I think it should have been applied across the board to more sports,” WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley said.

In other words, it’s only fair the PIAA adds classifications to individual sports like wrestling, track and field, swimming, golf and tennis. It’s an argument made on principle, and one that could find little support across the state.

However, with a narrow vote, the PIAA track steering committee recently did recommend expanding from two classifications to three — but it was only a recommendation.

“We believe (expansion) should be equitably applied to all sports,” O’Malley said. “If there are benefits to the kids where expansion occurred, those same benefits should be applied to the sports that weren’t expanded.”

Many around the WPIAL still consider those benefits a big “if.”

A key selling point for six classes was more teams could take part in district and state playoffs, a benefit that ultimately proved true in many sports. The WPIAL had 153 baseball and softball teams participate in the district playoffs this season, up from 124 in 2016. But a number of WPIAL coaches questioned whether the benefits were worth broken rivalries, additional travel and slumping attendance many WPIAL teams endured in the past year?

After completing a full school year, the debate remains.

“If it were my choice, I’d go back to what we had before,” said Mars athletic director and football coach Scott Heinauer, who also is a member of the WPIAL board. “We’re doing now what we have to do (as schools). But I’d rather get back to the rivalries, because that was better for our kids.”

Six-class proponents note it created a more level playing field by reducing the enrollment disparity between the largest and smallest school in a classification.

“It seemed evenly matched,” said McKeesport football coach Matt Miller, whose Tigers reached the WPIAL Class 5A final. “We were always a small Quad-A school, and you’d have to play schools that were twice your size.”

The WPIAL administrators won’t analyze the success or side effects of six classes until after the second year of this two-year cycle, O’Malley said. At that point, when the WPIAL board realigns sections and schedules, it could make some tweaks.

But shorter bus trips or reunited rivals aren’t guaranteed.

“Those are things I’m sure will be addressed in the next cycle, hopefully,” O’Malley said. “I don’t know how we do that, but again, we have to take a wait-and-see attitude until after the second year.”

Football, basketball, baseball and softball increased from four classifications to six, and soccer moved from three to four.

Latrobe baseball won its first WPIAL and PIAA titles during a memorable spring for the Wildcats, who celebrated two Class 5A championships. The team went from being one of the smaller Class AAAA teams to one of the largest in 5A.

“Looking back, you could say it worked out well for us winning everything,” said coach Matt Basciano, but he still missed the regular-season rivalries of years past.

Latrobe scheduled a March nonsection game with Hempfield, “but it’s still not that section rivalry,” he said, “because Hempfield was always the last game for us. It always meant a little bit more.”

Some of the storied rivalries lost were in football, with longtime matchups North Hills-North Allegheny and Upper St. Clair-Mt. Lebanon among those erased from the WPIAL schedule.

And in their place, many teams now needed directions to find their new opponents.

“Bus rides were longer,” said Heinauer, whose Planets shared a five-county football conference with Highlands, Indiana, New Castle, South Fayette, Blackhawk, Ambridge, Knoch and Montour. “It’s affected (our travel budget) tremendously. Our budget as far as busing, I think we got another $10,000 just because you’re talking about everybody, not just football. It’s baseball and softball, lacrosse, everybody. We’re doing all kind of traveling.”

But that long-haul experience varied from sport to sport and from section to section. Kiski Area boys basketball coach Joey Tutchstone saw his team’s travel improve. Instead of making section trips to Albert Gallatin and Connellsville, the Cavaliers joined a more centrally located section that includes Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Gateway, Greensburg Salem and Highlands.

“It was great for us,” Tutchstone said, “because I didn’t have one section ride over 20 minutes.”

However, come playoff time, six classifications wasn’t a boon for attendance. Sales for the WPIAL football playoffs were down almost $66,000 from the $625,000 anticipated in the budget. The basketball playoffs were an exception and sold $31,750 more than expected, but other sports did not fare as well.

“The fact that there were more teams that qualified didn’t necessarily translate in some sports — specifically football — to more attendance or more interest,” O’Malley said. “In fact, we had fewer attend this year’s tournament than attended last year. We don’t know what the reason for that might be.”

If six classes was to blame, an increased number of conference rematches could have caused football’s downturn.

Consider, Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin drew a good crowd for their Week 9 football matchup that TJ won 35-14. But the conference rivals didn’t draw as well two weeks later when they met in the WPIAL semifinals. TJ won again, 35-7.

“We experienced a number of disappointing crowds at those (football playoff) games,” O’Malley said, “and maybe it’s the fact that you’re replaying. There are only a couple of sections. You can’t escape the probability of a section rematch.”

But regardless, the six-class format won’t revert to four.

“Absolutely, it’s here to stay,” O’Malley said. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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