In August it was announced that Aquinas, the private school athletic power in Rochester, would be playing at the Class AA level in boys basketball for the 2011-12 season.
The Little Irish have a very talented team returning after making the state semifinals in Class A last year, so it makes sense for it to move up and compete in the state's largest classification. For the most part, the larger the schools, the better the competition.
It also makes sense for the Aquinas football program, one of the very best in the entire state, to compete in AA.
But it doesn't. Which is ridiculous.
The cause? Politics, the eternal debate between private and public schools and weak leadership at various levels. The effect? It goes well beyond their governing body, Section V, because when teams aren't classified appropriately it taints what is otherwise one of the best high school events of every year: The state tournament.
Western New York football fans know how good Aquinas is. The Little Irish have won 22 straight games against Monsignor Martin opponents, a streak that dates back to 2005. Aquinas has won three of the last five state championships in Class A. Most national polls have them as the only team, or the top team, from New York.
Sure sounds like an AA program to me.
Now, I'm not just being a nosy neighbor here. And I'm not being a jealous neighbor who can't keep up with the Joneses due to Aquinas' success. When Aquinas didn't win the state title in the last five years, Sweet Home did, and the two have had big showdowns.
The issue is the integrity of the state tournament, because a snapshot taken by one section clouds up the big picture.
Section V has its issues classifying a team like Aquinas, but once the state tournament begins, it washes its hands of a problem that is no longer its own as the Little Irish advance as an A.
Why should a team from this section, or any section, have to play perhaps the best program in the state, one that deserves to be up there with traditional state-wide AA powers like Orchard Park or Monroe-Woodbury, in Class A? They shouldn't.
It's not Aquinas' fault. They would play at AA. The reason is a petty political one: AA teams in Section V don't want Aquinas in their class. On a certain competitive level, one might not blame them, but instead it is a short-sighted, not-in-my-backyard way of thinking that shouldn't prevail. But Section V allows it to.
Section V let private schools in a long time ago, but that doesn't mean everyone is OK with it. This season, just like most recent seasons, Aquinas will play only one Section V team -- fellow private-school member McQuaid -- during the regular season because no local team wants to play them (thus all the meetings with Monsignor Martin teams).
That might sound familiar. The same stubborn, small-picture approach, exclusive to football and based ostensibly on public schools not wanting to lose their athletes to private schools (which, by the way, are doing just fine as they are), is shared by local Section VI large schools that refuse to play even nonleague games with private schools.
Wrong-headed classification is not something new for Aquinas, a school that has built a reputation (not to mention a sterling athletic complex) of excellence in sports. That's great. But their teams should be classified with those same standards of excellence in mind. Two additional recent examples of Section V's failure in this area were regional appearances by boys lacrosse (C) two years ago and girls basketball (B) last year.
There's no defensible reason that a private school which is able to draw from one of the state's largest cities should be competing in what are small-school classes.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association deserves major blame as well. Its party line when it comes to situations like these -- there are other occurrences throughout the state -- is that the sections have the right to do what they want. Well, that answer isn't good enough.
When the NYSPHSAA hands out those shiny wooden championship plaques that are shaped like our great state, they deserve to be based on the best system we can possibly have. There is a responsibility there, and an influence that can be used. Instead, the tail wags the dog. Instead of aspiring to the most ideal state tournament, we have to settle. The athletes, and coaches not just in Section VI -- but throughout the state -- shouldn't have to.