By: Chris Harlan
Thursday, March 31, 2022 | 6:06 PM
Philadelphia teams joined the PIAA basketball playoffs less than two decades ago, and District 12’s top administrator says his schools are here to stay, despite any wishful thinking by opponents.
Over the years, some Philadelphia coaches and players have opined that the state tournament didn’t match their excitement for winning a Philadelphia Catholic or Public League title, leading to speculation that the Philly teams might prefer life without the PIAA playoffs.
“No, that’s not true,” District 12 chairman Michael Hawkins said Saturday at Giant Center, while watching Philadelphia teams Roman Catholic and Archbishop Wood compete in the Class 6A boys final.
“We work hard to get where we are,” he said. “The people who say that are not the athletic directors. They’re not the coaches. … We’re in it. We’re in it forever, as far as I’m concerned.”
Philadelphia’s public schools joined the PIAA in 2004, soon after the school district hired a new superintendent. Their Catholic school counterparts joined four years later.
In the years since, Philadelphia schools have dominated the PIAA basketball playoffs. District 12 teams won 52 of the 156 state titles awarded since they joined. This past weekend in Hershey, District 12 schools won seven of 12.
That overwhelming success and a belief by some that Philadelphia schools don’t enforce PIAA transfer rules has made them a target for criticism. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said that criticism is misplaced.
“Folks in District 12 work very, very hard,” Lombardi said. “You see some of their programs are really good. But if you saw how they have to travel to practice and some of their facilities compared to some of our other schools, it’s not even close. They work very hard at it, and they should be complimented instead of criticized.”
Suggestions that Philadelphia teams don’t want to compete in the state playoffs are “absolutely erroneous,” said Lombardi, who also defended the district’s current approach to transfers.
The topic arose again Thursday after Neumann-Goretti won the Class 4A boys title for the team’s ninth state championship. Longtime Saints coach Carl Arrigale said in response to critics: “I coached 15 or 18 years without this, and we were fine.”
“Our (Catholic League) game at the Palestra, nothing matches that with 9,000 people at a high school game screaming and hollering,” he added. “It’s a great atmosphere, so (getting players focused for the PIAA playoffs) is actually hard. A lot harder than people think.”
Neumann-Goretti improved to 9-0 in state championship games — all since 2010. Arrigale also owns 12 Philadelphia Catholic League titles, which ranks as the most for one coach.
This year, the Saints defeated Archbishop Ryan, 61-57, in the Philadelphia Catholic League final. The Philadelphia Public League plays its championship at Temple’s Liacouras Center.
“It’s a lot harder than people think getting these kids to keep practicing,” Arrigale said, “and convincing them that Quaker Valley was a good team and Dallas was a good team, when they’d just been through that (PCL) pressure cooker.”
The most commonly heard criticism of Philadelphia schools is the belief administrators don’t crack down when players switch schools. Neumann-Goretti, for example, has a 6-foot-7 junior from London, England, who played basketball last school year in Saint Louis.
Aliquippa boys coach Nick Lackovich noted after Saturday’s loss to Philadelphia Catholic League team Devon Prep that his players all come from neighborhoods near the school and described Philadelphia as “free agency.”
“A kid is at this school this year, at that one next year and at this one the third year,” Lackovich said. “Let’s clean this up. Sometimes I think the WPIAL holds us back because obviously the eastern half of the state that doesn’t have to deal with the WPIAL seems to work pretty good for them.
“I’m not saying we need to get rid of the WPIAL, but they want to uphold the rules and the other half is not.”
Lombardi said that isn’t true.
Along with restrictions against athletically motivated transfers, the PIAA in recent years added a rule that makes most transfers ineligible for postseason competition for one year.
Lombardi disagreed with the idea that two districts, such as the WPIAL and District 12, approach those transfer rules differently.
“That was a long ago narrative by some people who really didn’t understand the rules,” he said. “They felt that they were doing it right and everybody else is doing is wrong. That’s not true anymore.”
Hawkins pointed to action District 12 took this month against Cardinal O’Hara and Bonner-Prendergast. When the district discovered that the teams used an ineligible player, they were forced to retroactively forfeit games.
The Bonner-Prendie boys missed the PIAA playoffs. The O’Hara girls qualified for states despite the forfeits and won the Class 5A title over Chartiers Valley.
“We dropped the hammer on them right away,” Hawkins said, but understood not everyone in the state would be convinced.
“To some people, it doesn’t make any difference what we say,” he said. “Haters are going to hate. That’s what they do.”
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