Earning a promotion


How many state titles do South Philly high-school teams have combined?


How many state titles do Philadelphia Public League teams have combined?


But that’s only because city squads haven’t been in the running. That’s about to change, as the Public League finally will become a member of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The PIAA, which governs statewide high-school competition, will welcome the Public League — now also known as PIAA District XII — at the start of the 2004-05 school year.

This year will serve as a warm-up as schools like Southern, Bok, Furness and Audenried adjust to PIAA policies on academics, attendance and physicals.

The city schools will have to wait another year before they are eligible to compete for state titles. By that time, the PIAA will have reclassified its divisions by enrollment — a process it goes through every other year.

The programs with the smallest enrollments compete in A, while the largest play in the AAAA postseason tournaments. The numbers can vary from sport to sport. For instance, the football playoffs are based on a school’s male enrollment of ninth- through 11th-graders. This season, schools with an enrollment of 470 boys or more will compete in the AAAA football playoffs.

Joining the PIAA will mark the biggest change in the Public League’s 100-year-plus history.

Marjorie Wuestner, the school district’s executive director of health, safety, physical education and sports administration, said schools CEO Paul Vallas was the catalyst for the move.

When Vallas took the reins of the district last summer, he inquired how many state championships Public League teams had won. He was disappointed to discover the answer was zero.

At Vallas’ urging, Wuestner contacted PIAA assistant executive director Melissa Mertz about the possibility of joining the state organization.

"It’s the first time we have ever had a CEO come on board who is very interested in improving the athletic program," Wuestner said.

The school district held meetings with the PIAA last fall before announcing in December that the Public League would apply for PIAA membership. The application received majority approval from the 29-member board in March.

"It’s very big and we are very excited about it," said Mertz. "[Adding Public League teams] was one of the goals of our executive director."

Mertz said the PIAA has spent a lot of time meeting with its newest members to discuss everything from medical coverage at sporting events to transfer policies. A 15-member PIAA District XII committee was created, with Wuestner serving as executive director.

"My summers are always busy," noted Wuestner. "This summer has been unbelievably busy because of the change in policies."

Under Public League rules, student-athletes’ grades were checked at the end of every report card period to ensure they maintained at least a 1.75 GPA. The PIAA regulations mandate grades be checked every Friday; any athlete failing a course will be ineligible to play games the following week, but permitted to practice while getting academic help. Any student failing a course at the end of a marking period will lose eligibility for 15 days.

"I think this will be helpful because coaches will constantly be made aware of what’s going on in the classes," Wuestner said.

When school starts next week, a new attendance policy also will be in place. In past seasons, the Public League had no strict policy for unexcused absences. This year, any student-athlete with 20 or more unexcused absences during a semester (September-January or January-June) will be ineligible for 45 days.

In addition, the PIAA keeps a closer eye on athletes’ health. The Public League required just one physical a year from its athletes, regardless of how many sports they played. Starting this fall, players must have a pre-participation physical before practicing, and have to be evaluated and recertified prior to joining other sports. The school district is working on an outreach program that will help uninsured student-athletes get health coverage from the state or other sources.

Come next season, athletic teams will experience another big change with their starting dates. Fall squads officially begin practicing today, but next year, practices will begin the second week of August. This policy wasn’t put into effect this year because coaches and athletes were already committed to summer jobs. Audenried athletic director and Southern football coach Bill Edger said he doesn’t mind an earlier starting date.

"I am OK with it because I always did it when I coached in the Catholic League," said Edger, who formerly coached the Father Judge football team.

Improvements within the school district’s athletic programs will coincide with the impending PIAA membership. Vallas’ five-year, $1.5-billion capital improvement plan will include adding and revamping athletic facilities and expanding the variety of sports offered.

Wuestner said within the next year-and-a-half to two years, the district plans to build at least three "super sites," which would include an Astroturf field, an all-weather track and an irrigation system. Though she declined to say which one, Wuestner confirmed a South Philadelphia field is in the running to receive a super site.

All the school buildings being constructed, including the new Audenried, will have state-of-the-art indoor facilities, she added.

But don’t expect to see a state championship game at one of Philly’s fancy new sites. The PIAA has contracts in place with neutral schools, or those that are not competing in that district. Mertz said Philadelphia schools would only be able to host first-round playoff games.

Many city schools, including some in South Philadelphia, are expanding their athletic offerings.

Furness might add bowling — a sport dropped from Public League competition several years ago — along with cheerleading, wrestling and junior varsity football. Bok, meanwhile, could field bowling and boys’ golf teams.

The school district also plans to develop the elementary and middle-school athletic programs into more effective feeder programs for high-school teams.

Students or parents with any questions about PIAA rules should call their high-school coaches or the school district’s Office of Health, Safety, Physical Education and Sports Administration at 215-875-3337.

State of change

The PIAA membership will include changes to academic eligibility, attendance and athletic physicals. Here’s the breakdown.

Public League Rules

Academic eligibility: Athletes needed to maintain a 1.75 GPA. Grades were checked at the end of every grading period.

Attendance: No official policy existed for unexcused absences.

Physicals: Student-athletes needed one physical a year.

PIAA Rules

Academic eligibility: Grades will be checked every Friday, and students must be passing four full-credit courses. Student-athletes with failing grades will be ineligible for games played the following week, but will be permitted to practice. Any student-athlete failing a course at the end of a grading period will lose eligibility for 15 days.

Attendance: Student-athletes with 20 or more unexcused absences during a semester (September-January or January-June) will be ineligible for 45 days. The ineligibility period doesn’t include summer school.

Physicals: Student-athletes need to have a pre-participation physical before practicing with a team. A reevaluation and recertification are required prior to participating in other sports.