By Phil Anastasia
So much for that controversial proposal to create a state-wide, non-public football conference.
New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe sent shockwaves through the state athletic community on Monday by reversing an NJSIAA vote that would have removed all the non-public schools from their exisiting football leagues and placed them in their own conference.
Hespe also reversed another NJSIAA vote to separate non-public wrestlers into four districts and one region during the first two stages of the individual state tournament.
"It's a good day for the WJFL and a good day for the whole state," said West Jersey Football League president Bud Kowal, the athletic director at Ewing.
In effect, the ruling maintain the status quo in New Jersey high school sports.
The ruling also rejected the popular sentiment of schools in the state.
In a vote by the general membership on Dec. 7, the proposals to separate non-public athletes and teams from public athletes and teams were passed by large majorities.
Many public-school coaches and adminstrators believe non-public schools have an unfair advantage in athletics because of their ability to draw students from an unrestricted geographic area.
But in his ruling, Hespe cited two previous decisions made by his predecessors on similar issues, including a landmark 1982 decision.
"A 1982 Commissioner of Education ruling says it best: 'A league and conference structure that provides opportunity for healthy athletic competition among urban, suburban, rural and parochial schools adds substantially to the benefits derived from such interaction and serves the interest of preparing our young people for future involvement with persons of diverse socio-economic, regional and religious backgrounds'," Hespe wrote.
Hespe also said separating the non-public schools in football "without a compelling rationale deprives them and the state of of the benefits of diverse interscholastic competition . . . "
As a result of Hespe's ruling, the WJFL will have 95 members starting in the 2016 season, including nine non-public schools.
The league, which had 66 schools last season, has merged with the Cape-Atlantic League and the Colonial Conference, effective in the 2016 season.
In the original mockup of the division alignments for the expanded WJFL, the nine non-public schools were in nine divisions.
Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell praised Hespe's decision and said the WJFL will "move forward" with finalizing schedules that include the non-public schools.
The rulings were greeted with approval by other non-public officials in South Jersey.
"It's great news," Holy Cross football coach Frank Holmes said.
Said Bishop Eustace football coach Rob Cormier: "It's a good day."
In a statement, the NJSIAA said the rulings "may not alleviate concerns related to competitive balance" and stressed that the organization "will continue seeking a recipe for fair play among member schools."
In an interview, NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko said Hespe sent a letter to the organization along with his ruling asking officials to continue to "further study" the public/non-public issue.
Timko said the organization will be "taking a close look at his letter and stating our strategy from there."
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