Hardesty: Public vs. private school basketball debate? I'm not joining it.

By Tom Hardesty | Assistant Sports Editor Published:

Every year at high school basketball tournament time, the same old tired argument rears its ugly head: Public school vs. private school.

The battle lines between the two sides are well-drawn, and there's almost nothing anyone can say to change someone's point of view on the subject. Minds on both sides were made up long ago.

So I'm not going to address that particular issue in this space.

What I will say, however, is that fans who have been watching the tournaments over the decades -- like myself -- have seen a dramatic transformation in demographics take place when it comes to small-school basketball in the state of Ohio.

And I love it.

For those who think small-school hoops should be reserved only for undersized teams playing slow-down basketball and launching long jump shots all game -- mixed in with countless trips to the foul line -- well, times have changed -- for the better. The small-school game has evolved into a fast-paced, athletic, play-above-the-rim venture in the mold of its big-school counterparts, which has elevated the small-school game to another level entirely.

Small-school hoops in Ohio have changed as the state's -- the country's -- demographics have changed. In other words, the Division IV level of basketball isn't just for the suburbs and outlying rural communities anymore. It's all-inclusive, and I think it's great for the game. It offers contrasting styles, tactics and strategies, and for someone who has attended the state basketball tournament for several decades, it's a breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, there are those who don't like the direction that Ohio small-school basketball has taken, and it comes off as close-minded and ugly.

To wit:

The Division IV state champion the last two years was Berlin Hiland, a tiny school in the middle of Amish country.

Hiland, a public school, won two consecutive state titles in impressive fashion, featuring a tall, athletic lineup with versatile players who could run the floor, bury NBA-range 3-pointers, and drive and dunk. Their three best players stood 6-foot-7, 6-6 and 6-4. Division IV opponents had little chance against this very-atypical small school from farm country.

Fast-forward the film to this season. Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph is tearing through the Division IV tournaments much like Berlin Hiland did the previous two years, only now there's a problem in the eyes of too many people:

First, St. Joseph is a private school. Second, it's an inner-city school. Third, it used to be a big school -- the operative phrase being "used to."

So now we get to hear how it's not fair, that the players on St. Joseph's team are too big, too fast and too athletic for the Division IV level.

So were Berlin Hiland's players the last two years, but nobody said a word. In fact, one of the Hawks' best players transferred to Hiland as a junior for those two state-championship seasons.

Again, not a peep.

I saw those Hiland teams play in person, and I was blown away at how big they were, how skilled they were, how versatile they were, even how they dunked like a Division I college team. In the state title game last year, Hiland dismantled Jackson Center 68-36.

That's a 32-point victory in the state championship game over the undefeated, No. 1-ranked team in the state. I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it myself.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching those thoroughbreds from Hiland glide up and down the floor, and I am looking forward to getting a look at St. Joseph this year. The Vikings have reached the regional finals, and a win Friday night at the Canton Memorial Fieldhouse would advance them to the state final four in Columbus next week.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: There is a wide gulf here between perception and reality.

The perception is that St. Joe is a ringer in Division IV, that it's not really a Division IV team and it has no business taking the floor against vastly outmanned opponents. Yet the exact same thing was true with Berlin Hiland the previous two seasons, as stated above, but apparently that was OK.

What fuels this perception is the fact that, before merging with all-girls school Villa Angela Academy in 1990, then all-boys St. Joseph was a member of the big-school division in Ohio basketball. That, plus the fact that St. Joe has one of the richest basketball traditions in all of Ohio, winning the Division I state title in 1991 and capturing Division II state championships in 1992, 1994 and 1995.

Because of the merger with the girls school, however, VASJ's boys enrollment steadily declined over the years, dropping to Division III and now to Division IV. Even so, the Division II title in 1995 remains the Vikings' last state championship in boys basketball.

Zero state titles in 17 seasons hardly makes St. Joseph the scourge of Ohio, yet the hysterical reaction of some to the Vikings' success thus far this year would have you believe that the OHSAA let the Miami Heat into the Division IV field.

Here's the reality: athletes today in general are bigger, faster and stronger across the board in all sports. Eventually this was going to find its way to Division IV basketball. Combine that with changing demographics, where a level of basketball long reserved for teams right out of central casting for "Hoosiers" is becoming more culturally diverse all the time, and you have a sea-change that some are not comfortable with at all, which is very unfortunate. This should be celebrated, not condemned.

Even with all that said, St. Joe isn't the first urban team to wreak havoc in Ohio small-school basketball. Columbus Wehrle, a small private school that has since closed down, wreaked havoc throughout the 1980s and featured future Ohio State stars such as Jerry Francis and Lawrence Funderburke. Wehrle won four small-school state titles between 1986 and 1990 before closing its doors after the 1991 season.

Then there's Dayton Jefferson, a small public school that won the Division IV state title in 2010 behind 6-foot-10 behemoth Adreian Payne, who now plays basketball at Michigan State. Dayton Jefferson also won state titles in 1979 and 1998.

But to say that those teams have an unfair athletic advantage over a Division IV tournament field is to sell a lot of other great teams extremely short. I have seen some awfully talented small-school teams at state that could have held their own with almost anyone at any level, such as Bobby Hoying's St. Henry teams that won back-to-back state championships in 1990 and 1991.

It's just that when a team like Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph does come along, the knee-jerk reaction is that it doesn't belong at the small-school level because it doesn't look the part -- in every way.

And that attitude is far more unfair than anything the Vikings can do on a basketball floor.

•••

Email: thardesty@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9446

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  • And by the way Mr. Hardesty, 3 of the 4 teams left in Division 4 are private schools! Just pure luck right?? Moron!

  • Took the words right out of my mouth anonymous_4526. I dont think anyones taking anything away from VASJ, they are a great team, I've seen them play 5 or 6 times this season. They play D1 and D2 teams and beat them on a regular basis. But are you really suggesting that there's not a problem with TRUE small schools like Windham (less than 90 boys)to have to play a team like VASJ in the state tournament, who purposely keep their enrollment numbers down and recruit all over northeast Ohio??? Give the private schools their own tournament and be done with it!

  • Mr.Hardesty, I will address you Berlin Hiland infatuation. Maybe in your world no one said a peep about Berlin Hiland but in my world we all know that team was fabricated team (To a lesser extent than St.Joes) that is coached by the girls high school head coach during the off season as is their boys teams that are coached by the girls coach during their off season. The boys head coach and the girls head coach are brothers. They just switch roles during the off season. They skate around the no contact period. When the season comes around both the Berlin Hiland girls and boys teams are well oiled machines. Mr, Hardesty do you remember the Garfield G-Men football team that was waxed by the Youngstown Cardinal team a few years back? Garfield had one heck of a team only to face a fabricated team from Youngstown. I thought that was extremely unfair. Now to my main point. Should private and public school be seperated? Let me copy and paste an article written by Bob Dyer of the Akron Beacon Journal. Read it closely and maybe just maybe you will change your mind. Especially look at the data pertaining to Walsh Jesuit and all their recent success. I have a feeling that you will be ashamed of your stance once you read the facts so here goes: Parochial schools rule sports By Bob Dyer Beacon Journal columnist Published: May 19, 2008 - 12:01 AM | Updated: June 17, 2011 - 07:38 PM A 2007 girls runner-up state poster displayed in the trophy case. The athletic director talked about the fairness of competing with parochial schools and the girl's state basketball title on Friday, May 2, 2008, in Stow, Ohio. (Paul Tople /Akron Beacon Journal) View Larger Version >> Only 8.5 percent of Ohio's high school students attend parochial schools. But of the 10 Ohio schools that have won the most sports championships, 70 percent are parochial. Parochial schools have won 31 consecutive Division I titles in wrestling, 21 straight in boys swimming, 10 straight in volleyball, seven straight in ice hockey and five straight in girls basketball. In the big-money sport, football, church-affiliated schools have won 22 titles in the 36-year history of the state playoffs — a whopping 61 percent. Why the huge discrepancy? Simple: The playing field is not level. Private schools assemble virtual all-star teams from five- and six-county areas, while public schools must make do mostly with whoever happens to reside within the boundaries of their school districts. Do private schools go around recruiting the best athletes? They're not supposed to, and they insist they don't. But they are allowed to recruit students in general, and if one of those students happens to be the best football player in the region, well, an admissions office generally won't object. Part of the reason so many stars end up at parochial schools is that kids and their parents want to be involved in strong athletic programs. Therefore, a lot of this is self-perpetuating. And for some families, a religious education is paramount. Their only decision is which private school to patronize. But the reasons this happens are less important than the fact that it happens. The bottom line is that interscholastic tournament competition in Ohio is horrendously disproportionate and intrinsically unfair. Talent drain Walsh Jesuit, a Catholic school in Cuyahoga Falls that has been in existence 43 years, has won 33 state championships — and six national championships. Seven of the seniors on Walsh's 2006 national-championship girls soccer team earned athletic scholarships to Division I colleges. Here's where each of the seven resided while at Walsh: • Rose Augustin (University of Notre Dame) lived in Silver Lake. • Kathleen Callahan (Miami) lived in Brecksville. • Amber Kasmer (Wright State) lived in Euclid. • Darcy Riley (Wisconsin) lived in Bath. • Liz Secue (Purdue) lived in Bath. • Kelly Thomas (Loyola in Maryland) lived in Shaker Heights. • Daniella Vespoli (Miami) lived in Bath. These folks have every right to go wherever they want, of course. But imagine how good the Revere soccer team would have been had those three future Division I players from Bath played for their local school. Revere didn't even make it out of the district tournament — little wonder, with their top players siphoned off. That same year, Walsh sent a 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman to national football power Boston College. Nick Schepis commuted to Walsh from North Royalton. The Beacon Journal's 2007 Tennis Player of the Year was Walsh's Nate Hobrath — who lived in Strongsville. A surprising number of public school stars wind up hopping to private schools as upperclassmen. One of the best female sprinters in America, Aareon Payne, spent her first two high school years at Ellet in Akron. Then, after winning the state 200-meter championship as a sophomore, she transferred to Beaumont, a Catholic school in Cleveland Heights — 45 minutes from Akron. The year she arrived, Beaumont's girls just happened to win their 15th state track championship. Payne, now a senior, has accepted a full athletic scholarship to Southern Cal. When the girls basketball coach at Medina County's Highland High was pushed out midway through last season, the team's star player, Jackie Cook — who was leading the Suburban League in scoring with 23 points per game — suddenly quit Highland and enrolled at Regina, a Catholic school in South Euclid. That would be the same Regina that ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in Northeast Ohio by the Plain Dealer and reached the final four in Columbus. Never mind that Regina — a tiny Division III school — is 34 miles from Highland High. Cook wasn't eligible to play for Regina this season, but by mid-January, she was already sitting on the Regina bench, wearing a Regina sweat shirt with her old Highland number (22) on the back. Divisionwide issue Which brings up a key point: Unequal competition doesn't just happen among the biggest schools. Private school dominance is just as noticeable in the smaller divisions. In girls basketball — the top sport for females — parochial schools have won six of the last 10 titles in Division II and eight of the last 10 in Division III. In soccer, the boys and girls combined have five divisions. During the last two seasons, private schools have won eight of those 10 titles. Wrestling has three divisions. Parochial schools have won not only 31 straight in the biggest division, but also nine straight in the smallest division. The solution? Simple. Create two state tournaments, one for public schools and one for private schools. Let the two continue to compete during the regular season — many public schools relish the challenge of taking on a local all-star team, and public schools have achieved some noteworthy upsets — but when it comes to the postseason, put the apples with the apples and the oranges with the oranges. Separate tournaments The idea is not new. In Maryland, New York and Texas, public and parochial schools play separate tournaments. But the Ohio High School Athletic Association shows no signs of moving in that direction. Two years ago, a committee was formed to investigate what could be done to balance the scale. According to OHSAA Commissioner Dan Ross, the committee came to the conclusion that the growth of open enrollment among public schools had begun to equalize the competition. In addition, he said, the consensus among those on the panel — superintendents, principals and athletic directors from both public and private schools — was that winning an all-inclusive championship is more meaningful. ''There was a very strong feeling that all of the schools together make a stronger tournament,'' Ross says. ''If you're going to win a state championship, you want to win it with everybody being involved.'' Ross, a graduate of St. Charles High, a parochial school in Columbus, points out that 74 percent of the state's 662 public school districts now offer some type of open enrollment. On the other hand, a quarter of those schools offer open enrollment only to residents of adjacent districts. And, according to figures from the Ohio Department of Education, 73 percent of all public school systems had a net gain of 25 students or fewer this year — counting all grades. Not exactly a flood of outsiders. Still not level The assertion that open enrollment has evened things up is laughable to many of us, including the athletic director of a local public school that itself offers unlimited open enrollment. ''The playing field is not level,'' says Stow Athletic Director Cyle Feldman, who thinks the state needs two playoff systems. ''Here's a great example: Our community was so excited about going down, a year ago, to the state girls basketball tournament [in Columbus]. And we played Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame. We looked at their roster, and their kids were from everywhere.'' Stow's girls were blown out by 20 points. ''I said to my coaches, 'Congratulations — you're the public school champions.' I meant it. ''That bothers me.'' Stow has won five state titles, more than most schools but far fewer than the majority of Summit County's parochial schools. The athletic director at the area's winningest school agrees that schools like his have an edge. Walsh's athletic director, Grant Conzaman, does not favor a split playoff system, but he readily acknowledges that private schools are on the better end of a tilted field. ''To say it's level would be overstating it,'' he says. ''I know there's the underlying thought that private schools can get kids from all over, which we do. That's not a question. My only objection [to the common perception] is that there's nothing nefarious that we're doing. We're just trying to get kids to come to our school.'' Although public schools complain that they often lose their best athletes after the eighth grade, Conzaman notes that public teams are usually made up of kids who have played together for many years and don't need to adjust to new teammates. But he concedes that the staying-together factor pales in comparison to the six-county factor. ''My private school colleagues will probably bristle if they see this in print,'' he says, ''but what the heck — it's true.'' Recruiting rules As Lake High School Athletic Director Bruce Brown points out, recruiting isn't necessarily a dirty word, as long as it's done by the book. The book says athletes can't be offered anything more than any other student. ''The reality of it is, parochial schools were developed as recruiting tools for the diocese,'' Brown says. '' . . . That's how they make their livelihood. ''If I'm a private school, I've got to recruit people to come or I'm out of business. So I kind of chuckle anymore when people say, 'They're out recruiting.' Well, of course they are! That's what they do!'' Brown is not ready to endorse a split system, though. ''I would not suggest at all that it's totally balanced,'' he says, ''but I don't know in the big picture if it would be the healthiest thing to separate public and private schools from a tournament standpoint.'' To be sure, public schools aren't immune to rolled eyeballs when a stud player's family decides to relocate. Future Ohio State University signee Justin Zwick made a national name for himself while playing quarterback at Orrville High — then showed up at legendary football power Massillon Washington. Stephanie Gibson, the starting basketball point guard for Kent State University as a freshman, played for Copley until eighth grade, then ended up at perennial power North Canton Hoover, which had just won a state championship. Her former Hoover teammate, Brittany Orban, the Beacon Journal's 2008 Player of the Year, spent her entire childhood playing for Green. Still, these are exceptions. The vast majority of parochial athletes don't live where they play. Nationwide problem When it comes to fairness, something clearly is amiss — and not just in Ohio. Athletic associations all over the country have been trying to address the same issue. Half a dozen states use a ''multiplier'' system that forces smaller parochial schools into bigger divisions. In Illinois, for example, if you have 100 boys in your school, you must multiply that by 1.65, giving you an enrollment of 165 boys for the purposes of determining your playoff division. In Arkansas, the figure is a hefty 1.75. The lowest is Missouri's, at 1.35. But multipliers can create other inequities, and multipliers do nothing to change parochial-school dominance in Division I, which is our state's biggest problem. Tim Flannery, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis, is a graduate of Cleveland powerhouse St. Ignatius. But he has lived the equation from both sides and knows things aren't equal. ''I was the athletic director at North Olmsted, and I will tell you that [a multiplier] doesn't help big schools that are public. You're still going to play Ignatius or [Cleveland's St.] Ed's. I don't care how many times they multiply.'' Wealth of cash Parochial schools have two other advantages: • Alumni and boosters provide massive amounts of money for athletic facilities, uniforms and travel. At Walsh, this year's booster-club budget is $204,000. Most public schools don't raise one-quarter of that amount. • Private schools can offer scholarships. At Walsh, 25 percent of the student body gets help with the $9,200 annual tuition. Put those two factors together and you get results such as this: Had LeBron James gone to his local high school, Kenmore, rather than accepting a scholarship to St. Vincent-St. Mary, he never would have been able to travel to places like Los Angeles and Philadelphia to play the best high schools in the nation. So the parochial dominance marches on. This school year — in all sports, in all divisions, both boys and girls — 8.5 percent of the student population has won 47 percent of the state titles. The imbalance is actually getting worse, not better. Says Flannery, from the national association: ''Having been raised in a Catholic setting, the big change in the last 20 years is the fact that non-Catholic kids go to parochial schools. And there's nothing to stop that. ''That didn't happen back in the '60s. You went to Catholic grade school, you went to Catholic high school. ''And this is happening across the country, in every state.'' As Flannery notes, any attempt to solve the problem is certain to ruffle feathers. ''Very few of our states have been able to come up with a solution everyone's happy with.'' In this case, the majority seem a lot less happy than the minority." Mr.Hardesty the above article was written with facts not opinions.