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Prep Talk: O’Hara girls basketball could pay the price for winning

Is Cardinal O’Hara being punished for having success in girls’ basketball?

The Hawks, who have won three New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association titles and two New York State Federation Tournament of Champions titles in two classes over the last four seasons, think so. This corner believes the area’s top-ranked large-school team may have a point.

The tiny Catholic school, whose programs are considered Class B in most other sports, may have to potentially go through a who’s who of top teams in the state’s largest classification, Class AA, in order to add to its championship collection.

Let’s repeat that – Class AA – which includes New York City power Christ the King, whose alumni include current WNBA players Sue Bird and Tina Charles.

How did this happen?

The four dioceses, which make up the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association, voted a month prior to the start of the season to have the Monsignor Martin Association start sending one team to participate in the Class AA bracket of the NYSCHSAA Tournament.

In exchange, the Rockville Diocese would start sending a Class B team to the tournament. The purpose was to end the practice of the dioceses alternating years of having to send two representatives to states to cover for the one who didn’t have an entrant for the four-team playoff in the other classes.

This then prompted the Monsignor Martin athletic directors to tweak the league’s state playoff qualification system. The regular-season champion will represent the Monsignor Martin at states in Class AA regardless of what happens during the league playoffs.

Should the regular-season champion win the postseason title, the runner-up goes to states as Class A. The teams that finish out of the top five in the regular-season league standings then participate in a Class B state-qualifying postseason tournament.

It’s a playoff system but a flawed one – mainly because no Monsignor Martin team (boys or girls) has any business being considered a Class AA school. The number of kids playing basketball in Western New York pales in comparison to New York City.

A season in which four girls from the area earn the Division I dream in basketball is considered great in these parts. For Christ the King, it’s just another season.

“We don’t fit into the other three diocese systems because they are so big,” league representative and Niagara Catholic coach Larry Puzan said. “Our biggest school is small compared to theirs size-wise.”

Changing the playoff rules is business as usual when it comes to Catholic girls basketball upstate and downstate. It happens seemingly every three to five seasons because decisions are made just so everyone can attempt to please everybody instead of having a formula in place that makes sense.

Catholic boys basketball has its act together, so much so that the Monsignor Martin designates its teams as Class A or B prior to the start of the season and splits them into two divisions. The Class A and B Manhattan Cup postseason champions then earn the right to go to the state Catholic playoffs. And while Canisius and Park both won state Federation championships last season, those are rare success stories for this area.

The boys system is one Cardinal O’Hara officials wish existed for the girls. Keep in mind, the Hawks aren’t coming off a state championship season – they lost in the semifinals last March to Kellenburg.

O’Hara understood and embraced the move from Class B to Class A after it won the Federation title in 2013.

A more seasoned Hawks crew followed up by winning the Class A Fed title the following year, just the second time any Western New York girls basketball team had won a state title at the Class A level.

Again, the Hawks didn’t win last year, which is why O’Hara officials are crying foul about potentially being penalized for simply winning games.

“O’Hara has also shown consistency of getting better and becoming a dominant program in Western New York and it’s not going unnoticed at the other end of the state,” Puzan said of the two-time defending Monsignor Martin regular-season and playoff champions.

In other words, the Rockville, Brooklyn-Queens and New York City dioceses made a power play to change the system at the last minute.

“Quite honestly it’s not fair,” longtime Hawks Athletic Director Angelo Sciandra said.

Still, O’Hara coach Nick O’Neal is perfectly happy going to states in Class AA because it beats not playing for a state title. So too is Sacred Heart counterpart Debbie Laux, whose Sharks are ranked second in the area and visit O’Hara on Wednesday.

The Hawks, though, wish the change was made during spring meetings. While O’Hara put together a challenging schedule, it did so with the understanding it would be a Class A school. More notice and the Hawks might have been able to tweak their schedule and make it more challenging as a way to better prepare for the playoffs.

“The thing with New York City is their top five teams play a national schedule,” O’Neal said. “They’re traveling all around the country and playing the top schools in the country. We’re limited to playing the top schools in our region.”

The Hawks kind of got a gauge of where they’re at on a national level last Saturday when they visited nationally ranked Villa Maria (Pa.), dropping a 44-27 decision to the unbeaten power, which is ranked 21st by MaxPreps and No. 65 by USA Today.

While other MMA coaches have taken the high road that three representatives in states is better than two, the last time Monsignor Martin sent a team in Class AA was a disaster.

The year was 2011. A very good Sacred Heart team featuring current St. Bonaventure star Katie Healy got crushed by Christ the King, resulting in then Sharks coach and New York State Basketball Hall of Famer Sister Maria Pares telling The Buffalo News: “It’s a completely different talent level” in the New York City area.

Chances are that hasn’t changed in five years.

Maybe the Monsignor Martin regular-season champion is playing strong enough team basketball come March that the team isn’t in over its head during the state tournament. It would not only make for a great story but serve as the ultimate “take that” moment.

For now, Sciandra can’t help but feel frustrated over the whole situation.

“There’s no easy answer because all the schools are different sizes,” Sciandra said, “but this was not the answer.”


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