PIAA forfeit ruling ridiculous

A commentary by Bob Smizik

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By noon Friday, it was snowing hard in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. Travel was becoming difficult.

People attempting to reach the 12:30 p.m. funeral of Myron Cope were delayed on the Parkway and Greentree Road by the inclement weather.

In the outlying districts, it was worse.

After an 11:30 a.m. dismissal, normal on Fridays at St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights, Joshua Diez was having problems getting home to Hampton.

"It was a very bad drive," said Diez, a guard on the St. Joseph basketball team. "I come home on Route 28 South, and there were several cars spun out on the side of the road with police and tow trucks coming to help. Conditions were terrible. People were going 5 to 10 mph down the hill."

As the afternoon progressed, travel became no better, particularly in rural areas.

St. Joseph athletic director Mike Stitt was home in southern Armstrong County fielding calls about the boys' basketball team's PIAA playoff game that night at Central Cambria High School in Ebensburg, Pa., about 75 miles away. Stitt had a firsthand understanding of the weather conditions. Dime Road, also Alternate Route 66 and the street on which he lives, was closed because of the snow.

The phone was ringing often at Stitt's house. As he remembered yesterday: "Our cheerleading coordinator called and said several of her girls were calling and said they were not going to be able to make it. Twenty minutes later, she called to say the cheerleaders were canceling.

"We had parents trying to get home from work, and they were backed up in traffic."

As far as Stitt and coach Kelly Robinson were concerned, there was no decision about whether the school's two buses should make the scheduled 4:30 departure for the trip up Route 422.

"It was a no-brainer," said Robinson. "We weren't going to ask our kids and our parents to make the trip."

It was such a no-brainer than when Stitt called to cancel two buses for the game, he described the dispatcher as "very grateful."

It was a no-brainer at the other end, too -- no brains at all.

In Harrisburg, the PIAA told St. Joseph to make the trip or forfeit the game.

"... we didn't have anybody in [Western Pennsylvania] who felt the game should be postponed. Those running the games in the West felt they should be played," said PIAA executive director Brad Cashman.

Robinson, with the support of his athletic director and principal, made the decision. He would not endanger the lives of his players and their families.

Eight seniors from this tiny, close-knit school never got to play their last game. Bureaucratic idiocy deprived them of a final memory of a high school career.

It's true every other school that played that night made it to their game. That doesn't make those decisions right. In fact, considering the peril in which some of the teams were placed by traveling, it was clear the PIAA put dozens of kids in harm's way for no good reason.

It took the Greensburg Central Catholic girls' team seven hours to get to its game at Clarion. Coach Rich Rosensteel said, "We probably saw seven accidents on the way there. ... The PIAA should've said the games were off and rescheduled them for the next day."

Vehicular safety is a consideration at any high school, but it is of particular concern at St. Joseph, which has 182 students in grades 9 through 12 and is one of the smallest schools in the WPIAL. St. Joseph knows firsthand what can happen on the road.

On Dec. 20, Amanda Moser, a popular senior, was killed in a two-car accident on Route 56 in Westmoreland Country.

"The fact we had to bury an 18-year old girl on Christmas Eve lingered in our mind," Stitt said.

"Obviously, that was in the back of our head," said Robinson. "You remember Amanda and you remember what these kids had gone through with the loss of a classmate. We didn't want to be tomorrow morning's headline It wasn't worth it."

Still, Robinson, who coaches part time and works full time in the payroll department of Allegheny Ludlum in Brackenridge, harbored a belief that right would prevail.

"You sit here on Saturday and Sunday and hope you get a phone call and say they rescheduled the game for Monday," he said.

For the record, it was snowing in Ebensburg, too.

Ron Stempka, the athletic director at Central Cambria, was the site manager.

"We're used to the snow up here," said Stempka, a Pittsburgh native. "We don't think much of it. But it was snowing. We had accumulation. The intensity was different in different places. Some places were getting pounded heavy."

It made no difference to the PIAA. The game must go on. Hard-headed business decisions prevailed over common sense.

The St. Joseph players would have loved to played another game, maybe two more. They're kids. They're competitive. But they also know their coach did the right thing.

In an e-mail to the Post-Gazette, Diez, who averaged almost 16 points a game, wrote, "I am not asking that this game be rescheduled or demanding an apology from the PIAA, but simply stating that our coach was correct in looking out for our safety."

Robinson said, "I feel good about the decision. I know it was the right one."

You'd like to think the people at the PIAA wouldn't say the same thing about their decision.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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