Varsity Xtra: Brotherly shove -- Philly teams have made a mark in PIAA
Vaux's Amir Butler drives to the basket against Math, Civics & Sciences in the first quarter of a PIAA Class A semifinal Tuesday.
Archbishop Carroll's Derrick Jones dunks against Pope John Paul II's Brent Mahoney in the first quarter of the PIAA Class AAA tournament game March 12 in Plymoiuth Meeting.
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This weekend, the PIAA Class AAA boys championship trophy will be heading back to District 12.
If that feels like a familiar refrain, it's because it will be the fifth consecutive year that a Philadelphia school will hoist the trophy in that classification.
The only question this year is whether it will be Imhotep Charter or Archbishop Carroll, which is located in Radnor, a suburb located northeast of the city, but a District 12 member school, succeeding three-time champion and district-mate Neumann-Goretti.
In fact, since the Philadelphia Catholic League started competing in the PIAA tournament in 2009, no one outside of District 12 has gotten their hands on the Class AAA trophy.
That year completed the integration of Philadelphia schools, both Catholic and public, into the PIAA field, and has changed the face of the tournament along with it.
While competition has increased, and the PIAA can now claim itself as a "true" state tournament, the changes have also resulted in more east vs. east finals, and taken away the traditional "west vs. east" feel of the championship game, especially in the larger classifications.
"I think it definitely dilutes the east vs. west because it doesn't happen any more," Chartiers Valley coach Tim McConnell said. "It's not an eastern vs. a western team. Some might argue you've got the best teams there, but I think it should be a true east vs. west game."
Before 2005, Philadelphia public and Catholic schools conducted their own "in-house" championship tournament. Each league crowned a champion, and their season ended at that point.
Former PIAA executive director Brad Cashman, though, thought that a true state organization needed to include representation from the state's most populous city.
The Philadelphia public schools joined the PIAA as District 12 in the 2004-05 season, and the Philadelphia Catholic League followed suit for the 2008-09 season.
Since then, the direct impact has been mixed across various classifications, but the ripple effect has been undeniable.
Since the 2005 season, District 12 teams have won 11 state titles, with a big chunk of those coming from Neumann-Goretti's "three-peat" in Class AAA, as well as Imhotep Charter's three Class AA championships.
Imhotep Charter moved up to Class AAA this season.
McConnell knows firsthand how tough the eastern schools can be. His Chartiers Valley team lost to Neumann-Goretti in the 2010 PIAA championship game.
"I mean, when we played Neumann-Goretti, they had five kids going Division I," McConnell said. "We had one kid going Division I. They've got a lot more talent."
The past two Class A champions also have come from District 12, and Vaux has a chance to make it three in a row this year.
Why have the smaller schools been able to have more success? WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said to look no further than Lincoln Park's recent accomplishments in the WPIAL.
"With the charter schools, where kids move around, their success is based on talent that comes in there. I think that -- probably more than anything -- impacts it," O'Malley said. "There are a number of small-enrollment charter schools in District 12 that have proven to be pretty dominant."
While District 12's impact has manifested itself on a competitive level in three classifications, the results have been virtually non-existent in the biggest classification.
Since the schools joined in 2005, no District 12 team has even played in a PIAA Class AAAA title game.
"I think that the thought process was that [Philadelphia schools] will just come right in and dominate," Central Catholic coach Chuck Crummie said.
That hasn't happened.
Still, though, their arrival made it harder for western teams to make it to the title game. No WPIAL team has won a Class AAAA championship since Penn Hills' title in 2004 and Schenley, the City League champion, won it in 2008.
When the District 12 teams joined, the PIAA was forced to reorganize the bracket to ensure districts were proportionally represented. Because the eastern part of the state has more Class AAAA-size schools, that meant sending some of them to the "western" half of the bracket.
"The argument was raised and apparently supported by a majority of the board of directors that, in fairness, they should have equal representation," O'Malley said.
According to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, there are 140 Class AAAA schools playing basketball on the eastern side of the state and only 44 in the west.
In this year's PIAA tournament bracket, eastern teams were granted 24 of the 32 berths in the Class AAAA field.
For the second consecutive year, this year's Class AAAA championship game will be a rematch of the District 1 title game between Chester and Lower Merion. New Castle, the final remaining western team in the bracket, lost to Lower Merion, 67-63, in the semifinals on Tuesday.
"I don't know if we'll ever get back to that [east vs. west title game], but it's clearly something New Castle would've liked to have seen," O'Malley said.
In 2004, the final season before District 12 joined the tournament, WPIAL teams won the AAAA, AAA and AA PIAA championships. Since then, only five state titles have come back to District 7.
Last year, three WPIAL teams made it to the title game, but all three fell to District 12 foes.
"They've won a lot more than we've won," McConnell said. "I just think they have some good basketball out there. There's no doubt about it.
"It's going to be tough for teams around here to go out there and win."
First Published March 22, 2013 12:00 am