Will the NJSIAA Change Non-Public Playoff Formats?

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The Philadelphia Inquirer


The issue is distance.

For Holy Spirit boys' basketball coach Jamie Gillespie, it's literal: The miles his team and others have to travel on winter roads to play early-round games in the non-public South B tournament.

For Camden Catholic football coach Nick Strom, it's figurative: The competitive chasm between his team and other larger-school, non-public programs in South Jersey and Central Jersey and the national-caliber squads in the northern part of the state.

Gillespie and Strom both are pulling hard for two proposals that would change the playoff format in non-public sports if passed by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's general membership on Monday.

The votes on the two proposals, one to significantly change the state tournament in non-public football and the other to tweak the state tournament in non-public boys' and girls' basketball, are the big items on the agenda for the NJSIAA's annual meeting at the Pines Manor in Edison, Middlesex County.

A majority of the number of votes cast is required for passage of the proposals, both of which originated in South Jersey.

Gillespie, who authored the plan to change the non-public basketball tournament, said he is "kind of in the dark" on the chances of passage since both proposals have no direct impact on public schools.

"These are issues that don't apply to the masses," Gillespie said. "We're just hoping, from our standpoint, that people can put themselves in our shoes and say, 'If this was affecting us, what would we want?' "

Travel issues

Gillespie's plan calls for the expansion of the non-public state tournament in boys' and girls' basketball to include four sections in Group A and four sections in Group B - South, Central, North 1 and North 2.

That's the existing format for public-school boys' and girls' basketball.

But in non-public, the existing format features South A and North A and South B and South A, creating travel issues in the early rounds.

"Wildwood Catholic had to travel, in the snow, to Gill St. Bernard [in Gladstone, Somerset County] last year," Gillespie said. "It took them 2 hours and 45 minutes. They didn't get home to 1 o'clock in the morning."

Gillespie knows his team and Wildwood Catholic, both of which are strong small-school programs, have stood little chance of winning a sectional title in recent years because powerhouse teams such as Gill St. Bernard, Roselle Catholic and Patrick School have been classified in South B.

But Gillespie said the impetus for his proposal wasn't a push for competitive balance as much an effort to alleviate travel hardships.

"St. Mary's of Elizabeth has had to travel to Wildwood Catholic twice in recent years," Gillespie said. "It's just a hardship that doesn't apply to schools in any other bracket."

Under the basketball proposal, a South A field likely would include teams such as St. Augustine, Paul VI, Bishop Eustace, Camden Catholic, Bishop Ahr, Christian Brothers, Notre Dame, Donovan Catholic and St. Joseph of Metuchen, with some adjustments.

The South B field likely would include Holy Spirit, Wildwood Catholic, Gloucester Catholic, Holy Cross, St. Joseph of Hammonton, Doane Academy, St. Rose, Trenton Catholic and Moorestown Friends, with some adjustments.

The South champion would play the Central champion, and the North 1 champion would play the North 2 champion in the state semifinals, in a mirror of the public-school format.

The semifinal winners would meet in the state finals.

"It should help the NJSIAA financially because you are having four sectional title games instead of two, and you should draw better crowds in the early rounds because you have a greater chance of nearby rivals playing each other," Gillespie said.

If passed, the proposal for changes to the non-public state tournaments in boys' and girls' basketball would take effect for the 2017-18 season.

'Critical mass'

The West Jersey Football League's proposal regarding the non-public football state tournament represents a much more drastic change, with the elimination of state championship games.

The change would take effective for the 2017 football season if passed by a majority vote.

Strom and others believe the time has come to stop forcing South Jersey and Central Jersey teams to travel long distances for first-round games against far superior teams in such a physical sport.

"Things have reached a critical mass," Strom said of the disparity between the larger non-public football programs in North Jersey and those in South and Central Jersey. "You're talking about setting kids up to fail."

The WJFL proposal would return non-public tournament football to sectional play for the first time since 1992, with competition for champions in South A and South B and North A and North B.

The proposal would eliminate the current format, in which there are three, state-wide non-public groups with teams competing for state championships.

"It's a fairness issue," said WJFL president Bud Kowal, the athletic director at Ewing. "And it's a problem with travel as well."

Not all non-public schools in South Jersey are supportive of the WJFL's proposal.

St. Augustine coach Mark Reardon, whose team has struggled to compete with North Jersey superpower programs such as Bergen Catholic, Paramus Catholic, St. Peter's Prep and Don Bosco Prep, is strongly opposed to changing non-public football to a sectional format.

"I have no interest in winning a sectional title," Reardon said.

Reardon believes competing in the state tournament against national-caliber teams raises the bar for his program and will continue to drive the Hermits to develop into a stronger squad.

"It's a blessing," Reardon said. "It's our challenge, but I believe it makes us better, knowing those are the teams we have to compete against."

St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco, whose team had won seven straight state titles at the smaller non-public level before losing this season in the non-public 2 semifinals, also believes that the current format works in favor of strengthening his program.

"Our focus has been on trying to win a state title," Sacco said.

Holy Spirit also has enjoyed success in the current format. The Spartans won state titles in 2007 and 2010 in non-public 3 and 2011 and 2012 in non-public 2 and will compete for the non-public 2 crown vs. Mater Dei Prep Saturday at Kean University.

Holy Cross Academy coach Frank Holmes doesn't think change will have much impact on his program, which competes in non-public 2.

"It looks like we're be playing the same teams," Holmes said.

Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell believes a change is necessary to "create a level playing field" for the Eagles and other programs that have been forced to compete against the best North Jersey programs.

"It's just not fair," Mitchell said. "That's a different level. It's a safety issue. It's a fairness issue. And the travel is an issue, too."

Camden Catholic usually is classified in non-public 3. Although the Irish avoid programs such as Bergen Catholic, Paramus Catholic, Don Bosco Prep and St. Peter's Prep, the Cherry Hill school's playoff bracket usually includes powerhouse teams such as St. Joseph of Montvale and DePaul Catholic.

"You leave those games like a M.A.S.H. unit," Strom said.

Strom believes the North Jersey superpower programs have an unfair advantage because of the resources they devote to football, the national-caliber games on their schedules and the large population centers from which they can draw student athletes.

St. Peter's Prep, for example, recently built a 15,000-square-foot athletic complex at the cost of $5.25 million.

"Nobody in South Jersey is doing anything like that," Strom said.

Before the recent non-public 3 state tournament, Bishop Eustace, Donovan Catholic and Pingry all opted not to participate, leaving just seven teams in the field and giving St. Joseph of Montvale, the top seed, a first-round bye.

"That's not going to change," Strom said. "With the struggling population of some parochial schools, it could get to a critical situation. You could see some schools struggling even to field a football team."

Bishop Eustace coach Rob Cormier, a strong proponent of the proposed change, believes that playing state tournament games against physically imposing teams such as St. Joseph of Montvale and DePaul Catholic threatens the viability of his program.

"It's just not realistic," Cormier has said of competing against some of the North Jersey powerhouse teams.

Under the WJFL proposal, a South A bracket likely would include teams such as St. Augustine, Paul VI, Camden Catholic, Notre Dame, St. John Vianney, St. Joseph of Metuchen, Red Bank Catholic, Donovan Catholic and Bishop Ahr, with some adjustments.

A South B bracket likely would include teams such as Holy Spirit, St. Joseph of Hammonton, Holy Cross, Mater Dei, Gloucester Catholic, Bishop Eustace, Immaculata, St. Anthony and Pingry, with some adjustments.

Strom believes the change would be a money-maker for the NJSIAA, with four championship games instead of three.

"Think about the crowd you would draw to Rowan if you had a doubleheader with St. Augustine vs. Paul VI and St. Joe's vs. Holy Spirit," Strom said. "It's time to get back to that."

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December 3, 2016


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