High School Principals Consider “Competitive Balance” Changes

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In Ohio high school sports, small private schools often dominate sports like football and baseball. That’s because of several things, including better facilities and flush booster clubs but also because teams are placed into tournaments based on their enrollment, so private schools often face small public schools.

But that could change: today is the last day for principals to vote on a controversial proposal that could tip the scale of Ohio high school sports. To find a small private school that dominates nearly every year, go about 30 miles east of Columbus to watch the Newark Catholic High School baseball team.

With just over 200 students in the school, the Green Wave has captured four state titles in the last decade and is a favorite to win again this year. John Cannizzaro is head coach…ask him why the team is so good and he deflects most of the credit to the district and parents.

“But you know there’s some talent there, too. Certainly you gotta win with some talent, and we’ve had enough to be pretty decent every year,” Cannizzaro said.

Another reason they’re “pretty decent every year” is they play in the Division 4 tournament with the likes of Amanda Clearcreek and Liberty Union, small public schools that lack the resources of a school that charges $4,000 a year in tuition.

But the road to state championships for schools like Newark Catholic could get tougher. Today’s the last day of voting on a proposal that would artificially inflate the enrollment of high schools that make the playoffs and those that attract students through open enrollment; it would also give enrollment credits to schools based on the number of students getting free lunches. The practical effect: small schools that attract middle and upper middle-class students and consistently win would likely move up to play tougher opponents.

“I’m not really in favor of anything that amounts to the trophy for everybody at Dairy Queen at the end,” says Mike Roark.

He’s the athletics administrator at Bishop Watterson, a Catholic school in Columbus and the defending state football champs in Division 3. He was attending a recent townhall-style meeting for administrators with questions or concerns about the so-called Competitive Balance measure. If it passes, Watterson would move up to Division 2. Roark says he wants a system that rewards success and doesn’t penalize it.

“It definitely puts some more obstacles in the way of maintaining success by having to ramp up and play in a larger division if you’re successful enough, or if you’re boundaries are broad enough, or if you have too few people on the free lunch program,” Roark says.

Sitting with Roak was another concerened administrator: Dan Garrick, principal at athletic powerhouse St. Francis Desales High School.

“Really what we need to look at is establishing cultures in our schools that promote excellence and promote tradition. I’m not sure that in some ways people might say the traditionally-successful schools aren’t being penalized here,” Garrick says.

“You know what, with all the factors I have a little problem with that one,” said David Gray,  president of the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s board of directors.

The board of directors voted unanimously to put the Competitive Balance measure up for a vote by principals. He says it’s not perfect, but it’s a start for a system that needs change. While no smaller public schools returned calls for this story, Gray says many of them tell him private schools have an unfair advantage.

“I don’t know if they do or not, to be very honest with you, but that’s one of the factors that the committee overall looked at and thought was really needed in order to have some fluctuation and movement in the divisions,” Gray says.

Back at Newark Catholic, baseball coach John Cannizzaro says he’s split. He likes the idea of competing against tougher schools, but it would make his job just that: tougher.

“The bigger the schools, they got more people. And in baseball the number one thing is pitching, and the more kids you got the more chance you got of pitching,” Cannizzaro says.

Cannizzaro can rest assured for at least the time being: if approved, the changes would not go into affect until 2013. When asked for a prediction if that’ll happen, OHSAA board president David Gray says “I don’t know. It’ll be a close vote.”

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