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‘Relegation’ proposal would let struggling teams drop down a level

Would it ‘level the playing field’ or offer ‘the easy way out’?
The Fighting Highlander mascot in the BHS main gym represents all of Baldwins sports teams.
Jacob Staley
The Fighting Highlander mascot in the BHS main gym represents all of Baldwin’s sports teams.

After struggling in the AAA division, Baldwin’s ice hockey team was moved down to the AA level several years ago. There, the team was so successful that it won the 2021 state title and earned a promotion back up to AAA.

Though the team has not seen the same kind of success since rejoining the higher division, senior Tanner Plinta thinks that the move was beneficial to the team’s development.

“Moving around divisions gave our team more confidence to perform at a higher level of competition,” he said.

But other Baldwin sports teams, many of which have been struggling, do not have the same opportunity to move down a level based on performance.

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Ice hockey, which is run by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, is unique in that it uses both promotion and relegation: Teams that do very well move up to play in a higher division, and those that struggle are “relegated” down. The idea is that teams are moved to a division where they will face more balanced competition.

Most school sports, however, are run by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, in which teams can move up but not down a level.

Recently, the Butler Area School District proposed that the PIAA adopt a relegation system. According to Butler’s proposal, struggling schools and programs could move down a level, given sufficient adversity within their conference.

“The classifications don’t tell the whole story and sometimes set up really unfair competition,” Dr. Brian White, Butler Area’s superintendent, said. 

The PIAA classifications are based on enrollment; but if a school gets enough transfer students and has enough success in a given sport, that team has to move up a division. 

If upward mobility like this exists, White argues, then why isn’t the reverse also an option?

The Butler Area School District is 150 square miles, so transportation to and from school for after-school activities is difficult, White said. He added that district families also are challenged financially, with 46 percent of the district’s students receiving free or reduced lunch.

We want the coaches’ input. Ultimately, the coaches are the ones who are the closest to the struggle and the reward.

— Supt. Dr. Randal Lutz

Butler’s football team has struggled to such an extent that the district opted to have its team play an independent schedule, and it is just now considering a return to the state system.

For Butler’s relegation proposal to be put into action, the PIAA would have to adopt it as a bylaw within its constitution. No date has been set for a vote on the matter, although Scott Seltzer, a WPIAL administrator, said that nothing will happen for several months.

“The PIAA board discusses those types of things at workshops, and they have a workshop in the summer and every once in a while they have a workshop in January,” Seltzer said.

White said the relegation plan would help students.

“I think the reaction would be good. I think the students want to play in competitive games.” White said. “The reality for us is that (our football team) lost 55-0 to Seneca Valley – and Seneca Valley had five losses in the WPIAL.”

The consistent struggles of some Baldwin sports teams – especially the football program – makes this an interesting proposition for the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. 

The Highlander football program has won only six games total over the past four seasons, and it has finished last in the 5A Allegheny Six conference in each of the past two. This year, the team was outscored by a margin of 211 points.

Other Baldwin sports teams have struggled as well. This fall, the boys soccer team finished with an overall record of 5-11, while the girls soccer team went 1-12. The girls volleyball team, which until recently was a regular contender for the section championship, finished this year with a record of 1-13. Golf went 3-9; girls tennis finished at 4-7. 

Superintendent Dr. Randal Lutz said that if the Butler proposal were to win approval by the state, the district would consider the option. 

The district’s goal is to develop interest in the school’s sports programs, ideally to a level seen in the football program at nearby Thomas Jefferson High School.

“It’s about building a system where the kids and youth look forward to being a Fighting Highlander varsity football player,” Lutz said. “You go to TJ and you see those kids from third grade on up, and they can’t wait to be in high school. And we don’t have that.”

We had a rough season and we need fair competition.

— Mia Wyse

But even if relegation were approved and the district opted in, Lutz thinks that dropping down a level would be just a short-term plan.

“I don’t think it would be a forever thing, because if we could build our numbers and build the youth program, and get that interest built from an early age, then it would be something where we would hopefully be able to move back up and do what we should be doing,” he said.

The question that would have to be considered, he said, is whether this would be the best way to improve the school’s sports programs.

“We want the coaches’ input,” Lutz said. “Ultimately, the coaches are the ones who are the closest to the struggle and the reward.” 

Athletic Director Anthony Cherico believes that moving Baldwin teams down a level would not help because of the quality of the competition that still exists one level lower.

“Moving down a division will still put our teams up against other very good programs, and it does not guarantee wins,” Cherico said.

It should be on the coaches and athletes to increase student attendance at open gyms and workouts, Cherico said. 

“It’s not about wins and losses, but how our athletes approach their sport,” he said.

Coaches have their own perspectives on the issue. Football coach Dana Brown Jr. thinks the football team should not move down a level.

“We’re going to remain up. I personally think we’re close to turning this thing around,” Brown said. “We have just as many good athletes as these other successful schools. We just have to get everyone out to participate.”

Playing teams who aren’t as good as the teams we’re playing now wouldn’t push us to be better.

— Brayden Gremba

The football team would benefit from more Baldwin athletes playing multiple sports, he said. He also said the team’s mental approach will be key moving forward.

“With us, the biggest challenge we faced this year was us,” Brown said. “We have to change the culture and learn to win.”

But boys soccer Assistant Coach Matt Fry Sr. is in support of the relegation plan.

“The relegation idea would certainly make games more entertaining and competitive,” Fry said. “There is no reason a team like Baldwin should be playing a team like (North Allegheny) in football.”

Some fall sports athletes said they liked the idea, including sophomore Mia Wyse, a girls volleyball player.

“I don’t think (relegation would be) the easy way out because we had a rough season and we need fair competition,” Wyse said. “Winning more games would benefit us as well, because it would keep our energy up and keep us motivated throughout the whole season.”

Freshman football player Marco Del Rosario thinks that the relegation proposal would boost roster numbers. 

“I think it’s a good idea. We only have a small number of players on our team. In the division, there are roughly a hundred kids on each (other) team,” while Baldwin’s team has far fewer.

Junior lacrosse player Cody Garrett also likes the proposal.

“I think if we were to move down divisions, our season would be a lot better than it was last year – definitely more wins,” Garrett said. 

But sophomore Brayden Gremba, a boys volleyball player, said moving down a division would weaken his program.

“Playing teams who aren’t as good as the teams we’re playing now wouldn’t push us to be better,” Gremba said. “In our current division, I think we have to work harder to even be considered to win games, and that helps us keep our practices harder – which makes us better.”

The question for Baldwin athletes seems to be whether a chance at more wins would ultimately help or hurt the school’s sports programs.

“I think moving a division down would increase our competitiveness in other games. Most of our games last season were games against schools we were not able to compete with.” Garrett said.

But Gremba disagreed.

“If we moved down to play smaller schools, it would result in more wins. However, I don’t think it would be as fun. If every game you go in knowing you’re going to win, it’s not very fun,” Gremba said. “And a section title would look nice on the wall in the gym, but it wouldn’t feel earned without a five-set match or a very competitive game.”

This story was originally published on Purbalite on November 13, 2023.