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PIAA to hear proposal on east-west tourney split

Pennsylvania's state basketball tournaments could return to a format that separates the east and west sides of the state until the finals, if a few western districts get their way.

Amid last week's discussion of expanding football classifications, the PIAA basketball steering committee passed a proposal of reverting its state tournaments to regional brackets. The proposal passed by a 7-5 vote among district basketball chairmen and will be addressed by the PIAA Board of Directors at its May meeting, District 3 basketball chairman Wendell Hower said.

"The West feels strongly that should happen," Hower said. "Of course, this year's results helped that argument."

District 10, near Erie, proposed the change in light of the dominance displayed by Philadelphia-based District 12, which had six of eight boys' finalists and swept the four PIAA championships.

Hower said he does not expect the PIAA to approve a change, but he voted yes for a specific reason.

"I think we have too many teams in the state playoffs," he said. "School budgets are tighter, and we're sending teams all across the state."

The PIAA shifted away from a regionally based bracket by the 2004-05 season. Before then, the 32-team state tournaments split evenly between east and west. Pittsburgh's District 7 previously qualified 10 teams for the boys' and girls' AAAA tournaments.

Currently, they send five teams for each tourney. Teams from the eastern side of Pennsylvania also enter the "west bracket."

A message was left for District 10 chairman Wally Blucas.

District 7 representative Dan O'Neil told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week, "We can build up the idea of a western and eastern final the way we used to. We've gotten away from that. I think it would be fun. We need some things to juice up the tournament a little."

A few York-area coaches in District 3 asked if that means they would be placed in the west side of the bracket.

"Who's going to be out west? I don't think they could get 16 teams from the west. We'll have to see," William Penn boys' coach Troy Sowers said.

Red Lion girls' coach Don Dimoff agreed and suggested playing District 3 in a "west bracket" might be the only competitive solution for Class AAAA.

Both coaches know the added difficulty that comes from the east side of Pennsylvania. Dimoff's Lions lost in this year's first round to District 1 runner-up Abington. The William Penn boys dropped a second-round meeting with District 12 and PIAA runner-up Martin Luther King. In both its district and state title games, MLK faced Roman Catholic — the crux of this debate.

District 3 would be affected significantly by any change. This year, its boys' AAAA finalists — William Penn and Cedar Crest — met District 12's top two in Round 2. Sowers' Bearcats have reached district title games for three straight years and promptly exited the state tourney against an eastern District 1 or 12 squad two games later.

"At York High, we have trouble in getting past the second round, and you have to understand what the second round is," Sowers said.

J.P. McCaskey and Harrisburg, which finished eighth and fifth in the District 3 boys' tournament, made deeper runs than William Penn and Cedar Crest. McCaskey reached the state semifinals, while Harrisburg finished in the quarterfinals after two trips to Altoona — 130-mile drives that Hower cited in his reasoning for supporting east and west separation.

In Classes AA and A, the brackets still are set up that way.

"There's no loser in the state final with East vs. West," York Catholic girls' coach Kevin Bankos said. "You won your side of the state."

Bankos' Fighting Irish most recently reached the PIAA Class AA title game in 2013. Their state semifinal was played in Reading that year against St. Basil Academy.

Conversely this season, a boys' AAAA state semifinal of MLK vs. District 8 champion Allderdice forced the teams to play in Chambersburg. For both schools, the drive is about 160 miles to meet halfway at the neutral site.

A bigger concern to area coaches is the Philadelphia School District.

Its schools make up the Philadelphia Public League, which formed District 12 with a few charter schools. They became eligible for PIAA tournament play by the 2004-05 season with the change in bracket format. A few years later, the Philadelphia Catholic League joined District 12.

Student-athletes at public and private schools in that area are free to move between schools. Neumann-Goretti won the girls' AA state title with two players who transferred from Prep Charter, which vacated its 2013 state title. Why? For using two players from Coatesville — a school district located outside District 12.

Watching this year's NCAA tournament, the subject hit home for William Penn's Sowers. His Bearcats lost in the second round of the 2013 PIAA tournament to St. Joseph's Prep. One of its star players, Steve Vasturia, is now at Notre Dame.

While Notre Dame played Kentucky in an NCAA Regional final, Vasturia was introduced as being from New Jersey. His bio on Notre Dame's website lists him as hailing from Medford, N.J. — about 20 miles from St. Joe's but across state lines.

"With Philadelphia having open enrollment, it's not fair to everyone else," Sowers said.

Public school coaches have long cried foul against private schools, but Hower doesn't see a situation where the PIAA can blow a whistle.

"I think it's probably untouchable," he said. "I think that's because of the legislature."

Contact Matt Goul at 771-2045.