The CIAC got it right in basketball, but there's more work to do

Adults entrusted with overseeing the games our kids play bear many responsibilities, but none greater than establishing the concept of equity: a fair baseline of competition.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state’s governing body for high school athletics, set a laudable example last weekend with the state boys’ basketball championships at Mohegan Sun. It took many years of meetings, feedback, whiny columnists and persuasive public opinion, but the CIAC came closer than ever this winter to creating the most balanced and equitable divisional alignments and playoff games.

Generally speaking, CIAC officials separated schools of choice — drawing students from numerous communities or from outside their district's boundaries — from small public high schools. It quelled choice schools’ perpetual competitive advantages, providing equity, a fair baseline and the same opportunity to achieve.

A few years ago, choice school Sacred Heart, once with state Player of the Year Mustapha Heron, played for the same trophy as Wheeler and Tourtellotte in the state’s smallest division. This year, the game featured Cromwell and Wamogo, two small public schools, a far more even matchup.

Detractors pointed to choice school (and eventual champion) Kolbe Cathedral’s placement in Division IV, the state’s second smallest division, in with Valley Regional, Montville and Stonington. The CIAC, given Kolbe’s 8-53 record the last three years, hardly had a choice. Kolbe will be placed in a higher division next year.

With a few exceptions — there will always be exceptions — the CIAC got it right.

Now it’s time for similar action — more equitable divisions — to permeate sports other than boys’ basketball.

Example: The last three state Class S baseball champions have been schools of choice: Northwest Catholic, St. Paul and Holy Cross. Straight up: Schools of choice do not belong in Class S because of the inherent competitive advantages that come with attracting kids from multiple towns.

Northwest Catholic’s website trumpets its class of 2018 “coming from 27 different towns across Connecticut.” And this spring, it will play for the same trophy in baseball and lacrosse as Wheeler and Old Lyme.

Question: What does a school that attracts from 27 different towns share with Wheeler?

“Hi … we’re Wheeler. We have 200 kids from the vast expanses of Wyassup Lake Rd.”

The point: Enrollment numbers alone cannot dictate divisional alignments. It’s not the mere numbers as much as how they’re amassed. If two schools have 400 boys apiece and one of them draws from 20 towns, it has a competitive advantage over the school that draws from one.

This spring, schools of choice are littered about Class S in every sport. It’s the antithesis of equity. And if they figured it out in boys’ basketball they can in other sports, too.

Choice school advantage was glaring during the football season. Choice school St. Joseph of Trumbull, an 11-time state champion and Class M runner-up in 2016, was allowed to drop to Class S in 2017. What is the rationale to allow a school whose own website says it gets kids from “more than 30 towns in Fairfield and New Haven counties” to compete in the smallest division?

This would require individual sports committees to have difficult conversations. Committee representatives from choice schools will balk, mostly because they don’t want to lose the competitive advantage. This is where principals and athletic directors from public schools need to be heard. Loudly and clearly.

CIAC officials know better than anyone that high school sports have never been more popular in Connecticut. Crowds are up, games are live streamed and state media outlets are going more local and less UConn-centric. It’s a beautiful thing. Community involvement in the games our kids play — evidenced by all of Waterford showing up for Sunday’s state basketball championship game — tells our kids that what they do matters.

It’s also shining the spotlight brighter than ever on inconsistency and inequity. Hence, it’s time for all sports in Connecticut to follow the boys’ basketball model.

You get kids from multiple towns?

You play by different rules.

You don’t belong playing Wheeler, and Shepaug Valley.

Kudos to the CIAC for a great basketball season.

Let’s keep the momentum.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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