The 2017 High School Football season ends this weekend with six State Championship Games. Four WPIAL teams reached the State Finals. Jeannette won the 1A title, Quaker Valley won the 3A crown, and Pine-Richland completed their perfect season by winning the 6A championship. Gateway fell to Archbishop Wood in the Class 5A Championship. With the season ending, the first two-year cycle of the 6-Classification system has come to an end. The process has already begun for the next two-year cycle, with schools submitting their enrollment numbers to the PIAA (the state-wide governing body). A few weeks ago, the PIAA released the enrollment numbers for the 2018-2019 cycle, which saw the shuffling between classifications of a number of WPIAL teams.
This past week was the deadline for schools to inform the state if they were opting to “play up” in a higher classification in any sport. There was a lot of speculation that schools such as Bethel Park or Penn Hills could opt to play up from Class 5A to Class 6A (which only has 9 teams in the WPIAL). At the end of the day, only three WPIAL schools opted to play up. The least surprising was Aliquippa, who once again opted to play up in Class 3A despite having an enrollment size of a 1A school. McKeesport opted to play up in Class 5A despite dropping down to a 4A-sized enrollment to maintain some of their historical rivalries with other schools in the eastern region. Finally, Serra Catholic opted to play up from 1A to 2A. Serra’s decision may have been geographically-driven as there is only one 1A school relatively close to them (Clairton) while there are 5 2A schools closer than the next-closest 1A school. Last cycle, Seton La Salle and Apollo-Ridge opted to play up from 2A to 3A, but both decided to remain in 2A this time around.
First and foremost, the PIAA playoff schedules dictate a portion of the WPIAL schedules. The PIAA decides at what point the champions from each district enter the state playoffs. For example, in the last two years the WPIAL Champions from 4A, 5A, and 6A entered the state playoffs at the quarterfinals which meant their Championship Games had to take place in Week 12. WPIAL Champions from Classes 1A and 2A entered the state playoffs in the semifinals which enabled their championship games to take place in Week 13. Depending on how the PIAA sets up their playoffs and at what point the WPIAL Champions enter the state playoffs will determine how the playoffs (and thus the regular season) are structured for different classifications.
With the 6 classifications in place, the next decision for the WPIAL board to make is the alignment of conferences and playoff structures. The WPIAL came under flak the last two seasons for their choices in 3A. The 3A classification had 23 teams that were split into 3 conferences. The 3A Champion entered the PIAA playoffs at the semifinal round, which meant their Championship could have been in Week 13 and 12 or 16 teams could have made the playoffs. However, because the WPIAL wanted to have 4 Championship Games at Heinz Field, they structured 3A so that only 8 teams made the playoffs and the 3A Champion got a bye week before their PIAA semifinal. This led to a situation in 2016 where a 7-2 Beaver team that was ranked #1 in the state before losing in Week 9 missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker for third place in their conference while a 5-4 South Park team made the playoffs by finishing third in theirs. This cycle, there are only 17 teams in 3A so this should not be an issue.
What to do with 5A?
The WPIAL’s most difficult decision for this realignment cycle is how to address 5A. With McKeesport playing up there are 24 teams in 5A. The WPIAL will have two difficult decisions to make. The first is how to structure the playoffs. If the 5A Champion enters the PIAA playoffs at the semifinals (like the 1A, 2A and 3A champions did in the prior cycle which all had at least 23 teams), the WPIAL will have to decide whether to let 8, 12 or 16 teams qualify for the playoffs. If the WPIAL stands by their desire to have 4 Championship Games at Heinz Field, the likely result is that only 8 5A teams will make the playoffs and the Champion could get a bye in the PIAA playoffs. If the WPIAL is willing to have fewer than four games at Heinz, then 12 or 16 teams could make the playoffs.
Playoff Compromise Option
There is a potential compromise option that the WPIAL has not utilized in the past but could be an option for this cycle. With 24 teams in 5A, conferences can be evenly divided into either 3 conferences of 8 teams or 4 conferences of 6 teams. Either way, this would result in a schedule with 5 or 7 conference games. If the WPIAL wanted to keep 4 games at Heinz Field but wanted a fair amount of 5A teams to qualify for the playoffs, they could opt to start the 5A playoffs in Week 9 rather than in Week 10 as has typically been done. This would mean the 5A playoffs would start while the rest of the WPIAL was playing regular season games, but this would also enable a fair amount of teams to qualify for the postseason rather than restricting it to just 8 teams and seeing a repeat of the problems in 3A this past cycle. In order to allow teams a full 9-game regular season, the WPIAL could permit 5A teams not qualifying for the playoffs to schedule a non-conference game against another 5A team during Week 9 while the rest of the classification started the playoffs. The WPIAL previously employed this practice in the 4-classification era in Week 10 when they let non-playoff teams schedule games against each other.
The 5A Alignment Problem
Once the WPIAL decides on the playoff structure for 5A, they will also have to make some difficult decisions in aligning teams into conferences. The problem here is the cluster of 6 teams in the East Hills that have been typically strong playoff contenders and are all in close geographic proximity. If the WPIAL groups them all together in one conference, it would certainly be a loaded group but it would also mean that a few of them would miss the playoffs each season (especially if only 8 teams make the playoffs). The alternative option would be for the WPIAL to split them apart into different conferences. In this case, the powerhouse schools would not all be grouped together and more of them would have the opportunity to make the playoffs, but it would create some geographic imbalance in the conference alignments. Here is a brief look at the successes of these 6 East Hills teams in the last decade:
These 6 teams have averaged over 9 playoff appearances per school in the last decade, meaning they have all been playoff staples. Of the other 18 5A schools, only four (Bethel Park, Mars, Upper St Clair, West Allegheny) have had 9 playoff appearances in the last decade. Besides West Allegheny’s 5 trips to Heinz Field, only two other teams outside the East Hills 6 (Bethel Park once and Upper St Clair once) have reached a Championship Game in the last decade. These six are clearly among the preeminent teams in the classification and while they are geographically close, it would be unfair to their program traditions for them to all be lumped together in a conference with a limited number of playoff spots available.
If the WPIAL wanted 3 conferences of 8 teams, they essentially have three options. There is a cluster of 5 northern teams that will likely be together in any alignment scenario: Mars, Hampton, North Hills, Shaler, Fox Chapel. Additionally, there is a cluster of 5 southern teams that will likely be together in any scenario: Chartiers Valley, Upper St Clair, Bethel Park, Baldwin, Peters Twp.
The first alignment scenario is the “Worst Case” for the East Hills teams where all 6 are grouped together. This scenario is also the one that keeps teams geographically the closest. [See Map]
The second possible alignment is the “Best Case” for the East Hills teams as it splits them apart with at least one team from the group in each of the 3 conferences. The downside is that this scenario is probably the worst option geographically based on proximity of schools. [See Map]
The third potential alignment strikes a balance by splitting up the East Hills teams but also keeping some respect to geography. [See Map]
In the past, the WPIAL has typically opted to align teams in fewer conferences with more teams in each rather than having more conferences with a smaller number of teams. If the WPIAL chose to have 4 conferences of 6 teams, this would eliminate a “Wild Card” from the playoff calculation as either the top 2 (if 8 teams make it), 3 (if there are 12 playoff teams) or 4 (if 16 teams advance) from each conference would qualify for the postseason.
It should be noted that regardless of how 5A is aligned (into 3 or 4 conferences), the “Compromise Option” for the playoffs would work in any scenario. With 3 conferences, teams would play 7 conference games which could easily be scheduled in the first 8 weeks of the season, allowing the playoffs to start in Week 9. With 4 conferences, teams would only play 5 conference games, which would enable them to play 3 (possibly 4 if you include Week 0 games) non-conference opponents in the first 8 weeks of the season, which would also allow the playoffs to start in Week 9. In this instance, the 6 East Hills teams could be split into different conferences but there would still be enough non-conference dates on the schedule they would be able to face each other in non-conference play and have a better chance to qualify for the playoffs. Here is an example of a 4-conference alignment:
The 5A/6A Combination
With only 9 teams in Class 6A, the most viable scenario seems to be to align them all into one conference. The question then arises for how to handle the playoffs, where the most traditional scenario of 8 playoff teams would result in a situation where only 1 team misses the postseason. One option that has been suggested by WPIAL Director Tim O’Malley is a combination of 5A and 6A teams for a regular season and playoffs. The farthest-advancing 5A and 6A teams would each then take the WPIAL places in the PIAA tournament. This is a bit of a radical shift from how the WPIAL has been structured in the past. That being said, there are 33 teams between 5A and 6A, which could result in a fairly even distribution of conferences (8, 8, 8, 9). One potential drawback to this scenario is if the WPIAL 5A and 6A champions enter the state playoffs at different stages, then the 5A/6A title game would need to be held in Week 12 which would mean only 8 teams would qualify for the playoffs unless the conference with 9 teams held scheduled conference games during Week 0 and the playoffs started in Week 9. Here is an example of a four-conference alignment for a combined 5A and 6A:
Classes 3A and 4A
While 5A is the most complicated classification, the other ones should be able to be sorted out with relative ease. Classes 4A will have 16 teams which means an equal distribution of 8 teams in two conferences. This also likely means 8 teams making the playoffs (the top 4 from each conference) with the 4A Champion entering the PIAA playoffs in the quarterfinals. Given the geographic distribution of teams, 4A mostly falls into place easily with a North-South divide. The biggest decision in 4A will be who the 8th team in the “southern” (or “Big Eight”) conference. The southern-most team from the “Northwest Eight” conference will be South Fayette, but it seems unlikely the WPIAL would group South Fayette (who has not lost a regular season game each of the last two seasons) in with Thomas Jefferson (the three-time defending WPIAL champions). In the interest of having balanced conferences, it would make sense to keep Thomas Jefferson and South Fayette seperate. Therefore, the next best team for the Big Eight Conference appears to be Indiana. Here are my suggested alignments for 4A [See Map]:
In 3A, the horrors of playoff qualification from the last two years will be over as there are 17 teams. This should result in a North-South split once again with 9 teams in the northern conference and 8 teams in the southern conference. With just two conferences, the top four from each would make the playoffs, making for a much better distribution than the last two years. Geographically, the north-south divide makes sense and there shouldn’t be any tough decisions on this one. Here are my suggested alignments for 3A [See Map]:
Four Conferences in Class 2A
With Serra Catholic opting to play up in 2A, the possibility of having 3 conferences was eliminated. The 31 teams in 2A will be split into 4 conferences of 8, 8, 8, and 7 teams. The biggest question the WPIAL will have to make for the Class 2A alignment is whether to keep the 7 South Hills teams together or to break them apart. The 7 schools (Carlynton, Seton La Salle, Brentwood, Steel Valley, South Allegheny, Serra Catholic, and East Allegheny) are all within 25 miles of each other. If they are kept together, this will likely result in one conference with a very wide geographic distribution (possibly from Apollo-Ridge to South Side Beaver, a 75-mile difference). If the WPIAL is willing to split those 7 schools apart, they could be broken up into three different conferences. Here is a look at the first option, where the “South Hills 7” remain together [See Map]:
The second option, where they are broken apart, creates better travel conditions for the Allegheny Valley schools by not forcing them to travel to Beaver County. This scenario also moves Washington and McGuffey into the “western” conference rather than in the “southern” conference [See Map]:
Easy Alignment in Class 1A
With Aliquippa and Serra Catholic deciding to play up, Class 1A has an even 24 teams that appear on the PIAA list. Interestingly enough, this list of schools that submitted enrollment numbers for football includes Vincentian Academy, which disbanded their football team this past summer due to a lack of interest. Vincentian’s enrollment made them a 1A school this cycle, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will field a football team. Their decision will not have a big impact on the WPIAL conference alignments, as 1A will once again have 3 conferences. If Vincentian plays, the conferences will all have 8 teams. If Vincentian does not play, one conference will drop down to 7 teams. One additional note is that the WPIAL typically likes to have an even number of teams overall so that schools do not have to go outside the WPIAL to find opponents during the regular season. If Vincentian does play, the WPIAL would have an odd number of teams. Two years ago, Farrell High School, a 1A school from southern Mercer County in District 10 petitioned the WPIAL to join but was denied. If Vincentian re-starts their football team I wonder if the WPIAL would re-consider either Farrell’s request or go back to Westinghouse High School (a 3A school in the Pittsburgh City League who had previously petitioned to join the WPIAL) in order to have an even number across all classifications. If Vincentian does not play, the WPIAL will have an even number of teams in total. Whether Vincentian plays or not, the distribution for 1A falls into place easily and there shouldn’t be much debate about conference alignments [See Map]:
Finally, if you want to explore the teams in each classification in more detail, here is an interactive map of all six classifications. You can toggle classes on and off by clicking on the box in the upper left corner and selecting/unselecting different classifications.