By Joseph Santoliquito
Special to MaxPreps.com
St. Joseph’s Prep had just steamrolled over everything in its path, and Hawks’ coach Gil Brooks was basking in another Philadelphia Catholic League Red Division (large school) championship. The Prep, as St. Joe’s is known in the Philadelphia area, finished an amazing 12-0 run in 2003. The Hawks were rated No. 3 nationally by USA Today and were the pride of the area.
Or so Brooks thought. When someone posed a question: “Hey, coach, how do you think you’d do against Strath Haven (a PIAA state powerhouse at the time)?”
Brooks grew agitated. “What could I say, what could I do then, we were only able to play the teams on our schedule,” Brooks said. “That year I would have put our team up against anyone in the state, and believe me, I would have. But it stopped at the Catholic League. That was the problem then.”
It’s not the problem now.
The Philadelphia Catholic League was once the only major sports league that wasn’t involved in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports in the state. Therefore, year after year, since the PIAA instituted a state playoff system in football in 1988, Pennsylvania never had what could arguably be defined as a “true state champion” in its four classifications (AAAA, AAA, AA, A) in football.
That will change this year, with the inclusion of the Catholic League as a full-fledged member of the PIAA in all sports. It breaks what some in the past called an isolationist policy regarding the Catholic League and the rest of the state—joining its cousin, the Philadelphia Public League (or “The Pub”), which entered the PIAA in September 2004.
“It’s not something we did hastily; we spent the last couple of years working to make this move,” said Jason Budd, Director of Secondary Student Services for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “The bottom line is we do everything for our kids. The point for our programs and schools is being able to be compared to programs outside our league. It is true that for years we were looked on as isolationists. Now that’s changed.”
Both Budd and Brooks noted there was reluctance with the switch. Many coaches throughout the Catholic League were concerned the tradition of the league would erode with the move to the PIAA. Concerns also arose about traditional neighborhood rivalries getting pushed aside, about how Thanksgiving Day games would be played, if a team advanced far into the PIAA playoffs.
Perhaps the biggest concern was scheduling. In football, the league cut its season short to accommodate the PIAA District 12 playoffs.
“The logistics of everything was about my only fear in this move,” Brooks said. “We had to work out how everything fit schedule-wise. It’s still something that needs to be smoothed out, but at least we’re a part of the PIAA and I suppose we’ll fix it as it goes.”
Bishop Joseph McFadden, who oversees education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was a big proponent of the move. It was his vision that began setting the wheels in motion in 2005.
“There was a concern that the Philadelphia Catholic League would lose its identity. But Bishop McFadden alleviated those fears,” Budd said. “It was his vision that we can now can crown a Catholic League champion, and yet compete at the state level. We’ll have the ability for our young people to participate and compete beyond the level where they used to compete.”
The highly successful Brooks, whose powerhouse team is 4-2 overall and 3-1 in the Catholic AAAA Division, a new classification to ease the merger with the PIAA, has always been on the cutting edge of the move into the PIAA.
The Catholic League used to be one league in football, divided geographically into a North and South Division until 1999, when the league was split based on enrollment into the Red (large school) and Blue (small school) Divisions, creating two separate league champions. (Football was the only sport in the Philadelphia Catholic League with separate league champions based on school enrollment, now increased to three, AAAA, AAA and AA).
The change, however, didn’t stop The Prep. The Hawks kept on winning. Over the previous four years, the Prep amassed a 40-11 record outside the PIAA and was a combined 25-0 in the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
The Hawks just had their 55-game, eight-year, regular-season league winning streak snapped earlier this year. Though Brooks has his sights set on something larger, because his team will have that chance. And the chance to win the first Philadelphia city championship since 1979, as the Catholic League merges with the Philadelphia Public League to play for the District 12 (Philadelphia) title.
“My hat is really off to the Public League for making this whole thing happen,” Brooks said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do anything without their cooperation. Some people affiliated with the Catholic League may look at this and say we’re breaking some traditions, but we’re also reinstituting the old city championship game, which goes way back (to 1938, when Prep won the first Philadelphia city title).
“Let’s face facts, some of the tradition eroded when we stopped being one league and became an enrollment-based system. We’re still going to have a league champion in football, though it’s going to be three separate champions based on enrollment classification. So we won’t be losing that much tradition, if anything, we’re reverting back to tradition with the Philadelphia City Championship.”
More importantly, Pennsylvania will have a true state champion in football.
“That’s the bottom line,” Brooks said. “That’s all that counts, something more to play for.”
Joseph Santoliquito covers high schools for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a frequent contributor to MaxPreps.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com