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NJSIAA votes down Non-Public playoff changes

EDISON, N.J. -- Some people might see the resounding defeat on Monday of a proposal to change the playoff football format for non-public schools as a ringing rejection of sectional tournaments in that classification of the sport.

Some might see the vote as an emphatic endorsement of the status quo.

Bud Kowal, president of the West Jersey Football League, which created the proposal, saw the result in broader terms.

"Two hundred people voted to violate the (NJSIAA) constitution," Kowal said after the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's annual general membership meeting at the Pines Manor banquet facility in Middlesex County.

The proposal to create sectional tournaments for non-public football and eliminate state championship games was defeated by a vote of 198-105, with nine abstentions.

In a much closer vote, a separate proposal to create four sections in Non-Public Groups A and B in basketball was defeated by 159-146, with four abstentions.

A simple majority of votes cast was needed to pass the proposals, both of which were endorsed by the NJSIAA's advisory and executive committees.

"I'm disappointed," said Holy Spirit boys' basketball coach Jamie Gillespie, who was the author of the basketball proposal. "But it was something that was out of my control. I'm hoping maybe it will stir discussion up at NJSIAA to continue to look at this situation."

Gillespie's proposal would have created four sections -- South, Central, North 1 and North 2 -- in Groups A and B to reduce travel in the early stages of the state tournament.

The current format has just two sections, South and North, in Groups A and B, which sometimes results in travel of more than two hours over winter roads for teams to play tournament games on school nights.

"I think it's a safety issue that needs to be looked at," Gillespie said.

Unlike the basketball proposal, which drew no questions for clarifications nor comments either in favor or against, the football plan was panned by several North Jersey school officials who took turns at the microphone before the vote.

That included three officials from North Jersey public schools, a couple of whom questioned the proposal because it would have created four sections for non-public football teams, meaning that 32 of 37 programs would qualify for the state tournament.

Kowal said he believed there was "real animosity" on the part of some schools from the North Jersey Football Superconference toward the WJFL because the WJFL has been reluctant to allow its teams to play non-conference games with some of the North Jersey non-public superpowers.

"They're upset because we don't want our teams to take two-hour bus rides," Kowal said.

Before the vote, Kowal addressed the crowd and noted the heart of the WJFL's proposal was that it would eliminate state championship games, which are prohibited in the NJSIAA's constitution.

Since 1993, the NJSIAA has staged state tournament games in non-public football in apparent violation of its own constitution. NJSIAA counsel Steve Goodell has said the "past practice" of holding the games allows for its continuance.

"If we're not enforcing our rules, if we're not abiding by our constitution, we might as well all go home," Kowal told the assembly of athletic directors and other school officials from around the state.

Although the WJFL made the football proposal, not all of its members were in favor.

St. Augustine, Holy Spirit and St. Joseph were believed to be in support of the status quo as all three schools have built football programs designed to compete for state titles.

"In our heart of hearts, we still want to play the best of the best," said St. Augustine athletic director Mike Rizzo, referring to the Hermits' classification in Non-Public 4 with national-caliber programs such as Don Bosco Prep, St. Peter's Prep, Paramus Catholic and Bergen Catholic.

Kowal noted that teams such as Bishop Eustace, Pingry and Donovan Catholic opted out of the Non-Public 3 tournament this season rather than play North Jersey powers such as St. Joseph of Montvale and DePaul Catholic.

"You might see more of that," Kowal said.

The lopsided vote on the football proposal underscored the gap between North Jersey and South Jersey on issues and likely will only increase speculation that some South Jersey schools would favor breaking away from the NJSIAA and forming their own organization.

Kowal admitted that such a move would be "drastic" and complicated, since it would involve endorsement from principals, superintendents and boards of education as well as athletic departments.

But Kowal admitted that many South Jersey athletic officials have grown increasingly frustrated by some of the NJSIAA's recent decisions with regard to football, from the automatic entrys to the state tournament for the non-public powerhouse programs, to the double power-point amendment that skewed the seedings this season, to the ongoing refusal to adhere to the constitutional ban of state championship games.

"People are going to say, 'Oh, you lost the vote,'" Kowal said. "It's not that I lost. It's not that the West Jersey lost. It's really that high school athletics in New Jersey lost."

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