There have been plenty of postgame victory celebrations this year for the Aliquippa football team.
Yet, at Central Cambria High School on Friday evening, as his players roamed the field, taking pictures and enjoying their Hershey kisses, which signify the group advancing to the PIAA Class 4A championship game Thursday, head coach Mike Warfield couldn't help but have a piece of his mind on the potential challenges to come next fall.
The Quips' 41-16 victory over Jersey Shore in the semifinals ensured two things: 1. Warfield's team will play for a state title against Bishop McDevitt. 2. The Aliquippa football program — barring a successful appeal — will be moving up to Class 5A in 2022 due to the PIAA's Competition Formula.
"It's just not fair," Warfield told the Times on Saturday. "This rule was put in place prematurely. As we go further and further into this, it becomes more and more clear that this rule has not been properly enforced. Our kids are getting worn down, and I'm afraid for their safety."
Warfield, his staff and school administration have been vocal about their disagreement with the PIAA's reclassification process, claiming that there are numerous factors that are simply not being considered. Needless to say, despite a clash for a state title just days away, Aliquippa is already beginning to prepare for a larger battle against the league it plays in — at least for now.
What is the Competition Formula?
In July 2018, in the hopes of preventing a handful of programs from dominating the same classification year after year, the PIAA created a Competition Formula.
"It's really to keep it competitive for everybody," Melissa Mertz, the assistant executive director of the PIAA, told the Times on Friday. "To kind of balance the competition out."
The Competition Formula is comprised of three variables that, together, help determine a program's classification for a two-year window. Those variables are enrollment classification, success factor and athletic transfers.
Enrollment is simple. As stated on the PIAA's website, "schools will be classified by enrollment of grades 9-10-11 in the odd-numbered calendar years by sport and gender."
Once a program's classification is determined by size, the PIAA then examines the success the team has had over the two-year window, and how many new players were a part of that success.
Each season, teams are measured by "success points" that are divvied out by how far a program goes in the postseason. Teams receive 1 point for reaching their district championship, 2 points for playing in a state quarterfinal, 3 points for playing in a state semifinal and 4 points for reaching the state championship.
If a team tallies six or more points in the two-year window of consideration, it is at risk to go up a classification. Before a decision is made, the PIAA looks at how many sports specific or "Athletic Transfers" the program under examination had during its two-year cycle. Three or more Athletic Transfers that take place between a student's natural break (8th grade to 9th grade) is the magic number.
Six or more success points plus three or more Athletic Transfers equals a bump up in classification. This applies to Aliquippa, who, with its win over Jersey Shore on Friday, tallied its sixth success point. The Quips also have five players listed as Athletic Transfers.
In the three years the Competition Formula has existed, the rule enforcement has been cut and dry. There is little to no place for schools under question to provide context as to why their situation is different than others, which is perhaps the best way to summarize the multitude of issues Aliquippa has with the entire process.
“I believe that the formula was made to protect us public schools from private schools," Phillip K Woods, superintendent of schools for the Aliquippa School District, told the Times on Saturday, "but right now, it seems and feels like only one school in the whole state is being punished.”
Warfield feels the same way, saying his team isn't necessarily being targeted by the PIAA but believes rules that were originally created with positive intent are hurting his group. Last year, Aliquippa High School graduated just 39 students. Aliquippa currently has 118 male students in grades 9 through 11, making it a Class 1A school by size.
However, years before the Competition Formula was created, the Quips football program decided to play at a higher level, believing that stronger competition for its student athletes would lead to better exposure for recruitment.
When the PIAA expanded from four classifications to six in 2016, Aliquippa felt that Class 3A was an ideal fit. It was high enough where the Quips could face solid opponents, while also keeping the safety of players within the program in mind.
The self-made choice to play up two levels years ago is now unintentionally hurting today's Aliquippa football program.
When the Quips learned that they'd be playing football in Class 4A at the start of the 2020 season, Warfield says he and many others around the program were in shock. Although Aliquippa's success and transfer numbers both exceeded formula limits, Warfield assumed the PIAA would remember that his team was already voluntarily playing well above its size.
With another promotion in classification around the corner, Warfield hopes that the PIAA will recognize Aliquippa's actual size as a district before it makes any decisions. According to documentation provided by Woods, the PIAA views Aliquippa as a Class 1A school in size for football.
Warfield and Woods are fine with the Competition Formula's intention. Both, however, simply want for Aliquippa to be a Class 1A school, rather than 4A in the beginning part of the equation.
"We should start where our enrollment says we should start at and be moved up from there, not where we chose to play at," Warfield said. "That's the flaw in the rule."
The other major issue Aliquippa has with the formula is transfers and the definition, along with the appeal process that comes with the third and final variable.
The PIAA's decision to crack down on transfers is simple. In order to keep things as fair as possible, teams below Class 6A aren't allowed to add an unlimited amount of new talent onto their roster.
At the end of each season, the PIAA goes through the rosters of each program with six or more success points and searches for names that weren't there the prior year. Aside from freshmen, who are obviously first-year players, Mertz says a list of the new players identified is sent to the school being examined.
The school then has a chance to explain the case for each player. If there was a player who simply didn't go out for the team the year before, that is the district's chance to explain. With those newcomers aside, the rest are deemed Athletic Transfers.
"The phrase that we use is, 'A transfer, is a transfer, is a transfer,'" Mertz told the Times.
An appeal process for Athletic Transfers exists, but numerous schools throughout the PIAA have been vocal about the imperfections of the process. There is no hearing or any chance for the player and or school in question to state their case in a public or private forum. The appeals process for Athletic Transfers is done entirely through paperwork.
School related documents (certificates of eligibility, transcripts, attendance records, CIPPE forms, etc.) are sent from the school to the PIAA's executive staff for a ruling. If the executive staff rejects the appeal, the decision then can be appealed to the PIAA Board of Directors.
Numerous schools have stated that the PIAA's transfer rules fail to take into account circumstances that are common in low income school districts. Warfield agrees.
"This only affects low income kids," Warfield said. "Most kids at a school like Mount Lebanon, they're from stable families. They don't have to move in with Grandma unless it's over something like a divorce. We're talking about something financial where a kid might have to move to a different place to survive. That's not his fault. This rule is only affecting communities like Aliquippa."
"This is not recruiting," Warfield said. "We're not recruiting. The PIAA has even acknowledged that. If we're not recruiting, how can we control kids going in and out of our district?"
Woods believes a paperwork-only process excludes a human element to a very human- influenced situation.
“For them to exclude a verbal, live testimony is a cowardly way to try and remove emotion from a situation," Woods said. "If you just look at a piece of paper, it’s just words. That takes away the humanistic aspect of it.”
The Times asked Mertz on Friday if she believed that the PIAA's rules on Athletic Transfers put schools in low-income areas — in this case Aliquippa — at a disadvantage. Her response:
"I don't and here's why: There is nothing to stop the transfer. That's no issue. The other piece to this is (Aliquippa) is still competitive. Look how competitive they are right now in 4A. They're in the semifinals. So that's why we say, it still comes back to how much success you have, really.
"These kids can transfer all they want, and at Aliquippa they're going to have success. If they stay pretty much on par, and don't go up to six points, they'll stay in that class. Or, they do have the ability to go down (a classification) if they're not successful. It really still hinges on success. That's really, honestly the biggest piece. The transfers are the supplemental piece, but their success is the biggest piece."
Too good for their own good?
There is no denying the success of Aliquippa's football program. The Quips have won three PIAA titles, 18 WPIAL championships, and have appeared in the District 7 final in each of the past 14 seasons.
Even after moving up to Class 4A in 2020, the success has only continued for Aliquippa, which lost to Thomas Jefferson in overtime of last year's WPIAL championship game, and, of course, is in this year's PIAA Class 4A final.
However, Aliquippa is not the most successful program in the PIAA.
On Saturday afternoon, Southern Columbia of District 4 will take on Serra Catholic for the PIAA Class 2A championship. The game will mark Southern Columbia's seventh straight appearance in a 2A state final, and the program's 20th overall.
2020 was the first opportunity for the competitive formula to move the four-time defending Class 2A champs up, but a successful appeal allowed for Southern Columbia to continue to compete against schools its size.
"Because they showed that two of their four students in question transferred during the natural break (8th grade to 9th grade) they didn't trigger the transfer portion of the competition formula," Mertz said. "However, we feel strongly that Southern Columbia should be in a higher classification."
Aliquippa can hope to do the same, but school officials anticipate a different result for their appeal. The Quips currently have five players in question as Athletic Transfers. One is no longer with the program and another has never played a snap in a practice or game.
There is a solid chance the PIAA will recognize both transfers listed above. The three others are a different story, however. This year's Aliquippa team has three players who played for other schools in Beaver County last fall. None of the three played a snap past the regular season, but it likely won't matter.
Regardless of their role on the team, the three will be viewed as Athletic Transfers, having only standard school paperwork to prove their intent to attend Aliquippa came from a motive other than hoping to be a part of a better football program.
With or without the contributions of its three new players, the Quips, in the eyes of the PIAA, have done enough to move up to Class 5A.
So what now?
One play late in the fourth quarter in Friday's victory over Jersey Shore summarized everything Warfield is fighting for his team to avoid going through next year in Class 5A. Refusing to let the Bulldogs gain any momentum on offense, Quips defensive lineman Naquan Crowder battled through a double team to fight his way into the Bulldogs' backfield.
Seconds after the play, which was a run for a short gain, came to an end, Crowder slowly began to make his way toward the sideline. The junior was clearly injured, taking a knee before he could make it off the field.
As he was examined on the bench, Warfield moved Isaiah Martinez from linebacker to fill Crowder's spot up front. While Martinez has been a serviceable player this year for the Quips, there was one notable difference between him and the player he replaced. Crowder who stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 345 pounds has the size to play defensive line in Class 4A. Martinez, who is listed at 5-foot-6, 205 pounds, does not.
"We have big guys, but they're playing 100 to 120 plays, week after week after week," Warfield said. "We don't have subs. They're worn down mentally and physically. I can see it on their faces."
Warfield, Woods and others who have a say in Aliquippa's football future claim that safety is the first and only priority. The Quips are known for winning and hope to continue to do so. But the district refuses to put its athletes in a situation that could cause more problems than a loss on Friday night.
Without the roster depth and healthcare resources that Class 5A programs have, Aliquippa feels that it would be irresponsible to ask its student athletes to compete in a schedule filled with so many disadvantages.
When Aliquippa's concern for the cumulative wear and tear its players would go through playing a full schedule against teams four classifications bigger in size, the PIAA admitted that more attention should go into the potential risk that comes from moving up so many times in a physical sport like football.
"It's definitely something that we will look into," Mertz said. "... We have a sports medicine advisory committee. We should start to gather some data on that to see if this would lead to more injuries."
Woods, on the other hand, believes that instead of collecting data, common sense should provide the correct answer.
"I'm not in support of putting our kids in a test tube, shaking them up and seeing what happens," Woods said. "I don't want to go another step forward with that experiment."
According to Woods, Aliquippa is considering numerous options on how the school's football program will compete next fall. An appeal will be issued to the PIAA. As mentioned earlier, Woods will also ask the PIAA to consider Aliquippa as a Class 1A team when plugging the numbers into the Competition Formula.
If either of those are successful, Aliquippa will remain in Class 4A and that will be the end of it. If not, further action could be taken, including the possibly of finding a new league.
"I don't make the final decision," Woods said. "I'm just there to provide guidance and information. Collectively as a school board, we will make the decision on what is best moving forward. I personally am not supporting, advocating or even entertaining the idea of Aliquippa playing in 5A. If that is the final decision, then my recommendation will be for us to find an alternative way for our kids to compete, whether that be on the national or independent level, against teams our size, not four or five times bigger. It's just not logical to me."
If it comes to that, Warfield says he and his staff will be on board.
"I'm going to support their decision," Warfield said. "Whatever Dr. Woods and the school board agree to do, I'm supporting it 100%. It's all about the safety and well being of our kids and that right now, is in jeopardy."
Thursday's contest against Bishop McDevitt could be historic. If the Quips win, they will have done so playing up three classifications, a feat no other PIAA football champion can claim. Win or lose, it could also be Aliquippa's final game in PIAA competition for quite some time.
This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Aliquippa considering all options with move to Class 5A imminent