By Phil Anastasia

Inquirer Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Competition between public and non-public schools in football could all but cease in New Jersey under the conditions of a controversial proposal presented on Tuesday by the state's governing body for scholastic sports.

A New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association committee formed to seek solutions to the growing rift between public and non-public schools is recommending the creation of a non-public football conference.

The committee is recommending that "a split of the public and non-public schools -- for football only -- be presented to the general membership for a vote" in December.

The change, if implemented, would drastically change the landscape of high school football in the state, disrupting existing conference alignments and creating a state-wide, non-public conference.

Reaction was strong and mixed after the proposal was presented by the NJSIAA's public/non-public committee during the annual convention of the state's high school athletic directors at the Golden Nugget casino/hotel.

"I'm not opposed," St. Augustine Prep athletic director Mike Rizzo said.

Rizzo said the change "absolutely" would benefit the Hermits' program because of the liklihood of playing more high-profile games within the conference as well as the ability to the schedule out-of-state showcase games.

Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell and St. Joseph athletic director Bill Hiltner were against the proposal.

"They're fixing the problems of five or six schools by creating problems for the entire state," said Mitchell, referring to the North Jersey power programs such as Don Bosco Prep, Bergen Catholic and Paramus Catholic.

Hiltner, who was a member of the committee that created the proposal, said he was "old school" and lamented the potential loss of rivalry games such as Holy Spirit vs. Atlantic City and Gloucester Catholic vs. Gloucester.

"There's a lot of tradition there," Hiltner said.

Under the terms of the proposal, public schools still would be allowed to play non-public schools but the logistics of scheduling those games woud be greatly complicated by the creation of the non-public conference.

The proposal will be presented to the NJSIAA's advisory and executive committees on Wednesday at the organization's headquarters in Robbinsville.

If passed by those committees, which is likely, the proposal would be presented to member schools at five sectional meetings in the fall.

The proposal would be presented for vote to the general membership in December. If passed by majority vote of the organization's 431 members, the change would take effect for the 2016 season.

The proposed non-public conference likely would include multiple divisions arranged by enrollment, geography and strength of program. There are around 37 non-public schools in the state that offer football.

In the traditional South Jersey area, there are eight non-public schools that field football teams: Bishop Eustace Prep, Camden Catholic, Gloucester Catholic, Holy Cross, Holy Spirit, Paul VI, St. Augustine Prep and St. Joseph.

Many of those schools likely would be grouped together in a division of the non-public conference.

The creation of the non-public conference also would have a ripple effect on exisiting conferences such as the West Jersey Football League, which has six non-public members, and the Cape-Atlantic League, which has three.

"What we have works," said Ewing athletic director Bud Kowal, the president of the WJFL. "We have a lot of schools (66) and we have a lot of flexibility and can create competitive balance. We don't have the problems they have up North."

The loss of Holy Spirit, St. Augustine and St. Joseph would leave the CAL with 14 football programs. The league could look to join with the WJFL, which likely would be amendable to a merger since the presence of the CAL's powerful non-public programs has been a stumbling block to that agreement in the past.

NJSIAA counsel Steve Goodell said the change was "radical" and needed to be presented to the general membership.

This is a significant change from the way we've operated forever," Goodell said.

Mitchell and several other athletic directors who spoke during a question-and-answer session wondered whether the creation of a non-public football conference would withstand legal challenge.

"The courts have ruled before you can't separate the non-public schools," Mitchell said.

Goodell said he believed the change would weather a legal challenge because "football is a different animal" and that travel hardships would be mitigated by the fact that teams would play just four or five road games a year.

-- Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com

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