Just as the Philadelphia Eagles were breaking camp, the South Philadelphia High and Edward Bok Tech football teams kicked off their summer training sessions.
The players put on the shoulder pads and helmets a couple of weeks sooner than usual, but not just for extra practice.
The Southern Rams and Bok Wildcats are on a new schedule, thanks to their membership in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. The organization governs statewide high-school competition.
Last year, which served as an introduction to the PIAA, the city’s public schools followed the group’s guidelines on academics, attendance and physicals, but were not eligible to compete in state tournaments. This season, the winner of Public League District XII — the new name for the city’s Public League — will qualify for the state football tournament.
Despite having to give up some vacation time, local athletes are ready for some PIAA football at 11th and Bigler streets.
"It gets you in the mood for school and football at the same time," said Bok senior fullback-defensive end Cossim Turner.
Southern and Bok are now members of the Public South Division, which also includes Bartram, West Philadelphia, University City, Ben Franklin and Overbrook. The league has three seven-team divisions, a change from the four-division format.
The new structure will spare the Rams from historically lopsided match-ups with championship contenders Frankford and Washington.
Other than the earlier start to the season, the city’s football programs are just about status quo.
The biggest development is the opportunity to compete for state titles. Football teams and other varsity male athletic squads are placed in groups based on the school’s male enrollment of freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
For instance, Bok’s male enrollment of 366 puts the team in AAA, while Southern, with 570 male students, is in the most populous category, AAAA.
Bok, William Penn and Ben Franklin, along with new schools Imhotep Charter and Freire Charter, are the city’s only AAA teams. All of the District XII teams fall into either AAA or AAAA.
The winner of the District XII playoffs automatically qualifies for the state tournament.
But two city football teams actually will compete at the state level each year.
Here’s where local coaches will need a scorecard:
The city’s top AAA team will play the top team from District 1 — Philadelphia suburban squads — with the winner advancing to the state tournament.
However, if an AAA squad wins the District XII championship, that team gets a bye to the state tournament game, and it would be the top AAAA member that faces a suburban squad.
"We’re looking forward to all our teams representing Philadelphia in the statewide PIAA playoffs," said Vincent Thompson, spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia.
The city’s membership could cause a conflict, however, if the state tournament overlaps with Thanksgiving Day rivalries such as Southern and Neumann-Goretti.
As of now, the PIAA quarterfinals are scheduled for Nov. 26 and 27 — the Friday and Saturday after the holiday. The city champs could elect not to play in the state tournament, but the District XII committee would meet with the program’s coach and athletic director to try to avoid such a situation, Thompson said.
The issue is expected to come up at a committee meeting attended by city athletic directors.
"I can see the drafting of a permanent policy on the issue," Thompson said.
For now, football teams are focused on preparations for the regular season. Some teams scheduled non-league games for next Thursday and Friday, but the Rams and Wildcats are opting for an extra week of practice.
"I didn’t think we would be ready," said Southern coach Bill Edger, who has a scrimmage scheduled against Edison this week. Bok will practice with Martin Luther King.
The Rams will open the season Sept. 10 against William Penn at home. Even though it’s a non-league contest, Edger isn’t discounting the match against the opponent, which faced strictly junior-varsity competition last fall.
"They’re going to be ready to play," Edger said of William Penn.
The upside is the Rams are averaging about 25 players a day for two-hour practices that start at 10 a.m. Some athletes that are expected to return haven’t shown up yet, but the coach believes that might be due to summer jobs.
Players like Bok’s Turner have been working out at the YMCA to get ready for the season. Even after all those hours in the weight room, the athlete said he "still felt a little sore" the first day of practice.
Like every other city team, Bok and Southern would love the opportunity to represent Philadelphia in the state playoffs, but they have a lot of work to do.
Bok last played for the Public League title in 1951, while Southern’s last championship came in ’65.
Players like Bok senior Rasheed Fleming, a guard-defensive end, are remaining optimistic.
"I am looking forward to the PIAA competition," he said.
Public South Division