One of the new additions to the Steel City Blitz arsenal this season is the addition of Western PA High School (WPIAL) Football coverage. I have lived in Western Pennsylvania my whole life and have been following WPIAL football since before I started blogging. When I was in high school, I kept track of the WPIAL standings in Microsoft Works spreadsheets. Yes, I know that dates me for how old I am because that was pre-Excel. High school football operates differently in each state, and even in Pennsylvania the structure has changed in recent years with the move from 4 to 6 classifications. This post is intended to provide an overview for how high school football in Pennsylvania functions to give our loyal SCB readers a solid baseline as we expand coverage this season.
The PIAA is the governing body for high school athletics in the state of Pennsylvania and determins the distribution of teams into classes. Every two years, schools are re-classified based on their enrollment numbers. For sports like football, the enrollment numbers are based on the number of male students enrolled at the school from grades 9-11 in the year prior to a realignment. The PIAA then sorts the 570 schools into order from the highest enrollment to the lowest enrollment. The top 17% (top 1/6th) become the 6A schools. The next 17% are the 5A schools, and so on down to the smallest 17% which are the 1A schools. Ideally, this yields about 95 schools in each classification. Schools do have the option to “play up” in a higher classification with larger schools.
Like in The Hunger Games, there are 12 Districts in Pennsylvania high school football. The 12 Districts have distinct geographic lines, which are generally based on Pennsylvania county lines. Due to this, some districts have more football-playing schools than others. The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) is District 7 based on the state districting system and the Pittsburgh City Schools are District 8. I tend to focus primarily on District 7 (WPIAL). Some districts will allow teams to compete in a certain sport with another district. For instance, Altoona is geographically located in District 6 but competes in football in District 7 because it is a more competitive district.
Since schools are sorted into classifications on a state-wide level, there are not an even number of schools in each class within each district. In the eastern part of the state around Philadelphia (Districts 1 and 3) there tend to be a lot of large schools so those districts have more schools in 5A and 6A than any other district. At the same time, the WPIAL has the most schools in any district (120 total, about 30 more than the next closest). This is largely due to the WPIAL having the most schools in the smaller classifications (1A, 2A, and 3A). Districts with more schools have their champions advanced further in the PIAA playoffs (for example, the WPIAL 1A champion enters the PIAA playoffs in the semi-finals while the WPIAL 6A champion enters the PIAA playoffs in the quarter-finals).
How the WPIAL Works
Each of the six classifications are broken down into conferences for scheduling purposes. The conference alignments are determined by the WPIAL administrative committee.
There are 14 schools in 6A which are divided into two conferences of 7 teams each. 5A and 4A both have 18 teams which are divided into two conferences of 9 teams each. In 6A, 5A, and 4A the top 4 teams from each conference make the playoffs. The top 2 teams in each conference get a home game in the first round of the playoffs. The semi-final games are played at neutral sites and the Championship Game for each classification is played at Heinz Field on November 17 or 18.
Class 3A is the most complicated of the WPIAL classifications. There are 23 teams that play in 3A, divided into conferences of 7, 8, and 8. Only 8 teams make the playoffs (which is a source of some contention). The top two teams in each conference plus 2 of the 3 third place teams make the playoffs. This sparked some controversy last season when the fourth place team in one conference had a better record than a third-place team that made the playoffs. The three conference champions plus the best second place team get home games in the first round. Semi-finals are played at a neutral site and the Championship Game is played at Heinz Field on November 17 or 18.
Unlike the rest of the WPIAL classes, 16 teams make the playoffs in 1A and 2A. When realignment occurred, there were 24 teams in 2A that were evenly split between 3 conferences in each classification. However, Vincentian Academy recently decided to disband their football program so 2A will only have 23 teams this season. There are 25 teams in 1A, divided into conferences with 8, 8, and 9 teams. In both 1A and 2A, the top 5 teams in each conference make the playoffs along with one 6th place team. The top 2 teams in each conference and 2 of the 3 third place teams get home games in the first round of the playoffs. The quarter-finals and semi-finals are played at neutral sites with the Championships played at Joe Walton Stadium at Robert Morris University on November 24 or 25.
All teams play every team in their conference during the 9-week regular season (along with some additional non-conference games). Conference records determine the order of teams in the standings and non-conference games do not count. Head-to-head results are the first tiebreaker. The second tiebreaker is “Gardner Points” which is essentially a strength of victory metric. Teams are awarded 10 “Gardner Points” for each win by an opponent that they beat. Finally, the “WPIAL Points Tiebreaker” is a margin of victory tiebreaker. Teams gain and lose points based on the results of games with a maximum of +10 or -10 for any double-digit wins or defeats.
For purposes of determining the “Wild Card” playoff spots only, an additional non-conference game may count for certain teams in order to balance out the number of opponents. For example, in 3A where there are an uneven number of teams in each conference (7, 8, 8) the games played by Beaver Valley Conference teams against the Interstate Conference teams count only for the Beaver Valley teams for determining Wild Card standings. This may sound complicated at the outset, but it will become clearer as the season progresses.
This year, we intend to bring you conference previews for each of the 15 WPIAL conferences along with week-by-week “Games of the Week” previews to highlight the biggest games on the schedule. Additionally, we will feature the only WPIAL Standings Page on the internet that lists all the tiebreakers and sorts the teams in proper standings order. If you’re from Western Pennsylvania, you should know that Steel City Blitz will now be the premier location for WPIAL Football analysis. If you are a Pittsburgh ex-pat, we hope our coverage can help you stay connected (or re-connect) with the high school football news from your alma mater. If you’re not from the area, we will shed some light on some of the top college prospects that are coming up through the ranks in Western PA. We hope you enjoy our expanded WPIAL content, which will start popping up here on the site tomorrow!