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CIAC: the home office for competitive disadvantage

Imagine if the NCAA, whose bouts with rationality and equity are often coincidental, allowed LSU to compete for the 1-AA football championship this fall. LSU would bypass Clemson and play Villanova for a championship.

Oh, the humanity. We'd all scream louder than Dick Vitale about the utter absurdity.

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference just allowed its equivalent of LSU to play all the relative Villanovas.

Three-time defending state champion St. Joseph of Trumbull, the state's Class L champion and unanimous No. 1 team last season, will drop to Class M for the upcoming season. The Cadets, who beat traditional powers New Canaan and Hand in last season's playoffs, will compete against Coginchaug/Hale Ray/East Hampton, Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial, the CREC Tri-Op (Civic Leadership/Aerospace/Metropolitan Learning Center), MCW United (Wolcott Tech/Housatonic Regional/Wamogo) and Thames River (Norwich Tech/Grasso/Grasso Tech/St. Bernard) for a championship this season.

"Absolutely unbelievable," Berlin coach Joe Aresimowicz (and state representative/Speaker of the House) was saying earlier this week. "Absolutely ridiculous. It's time for the principals to step in. This can't go on. It's a complete competitive disadvantage."

Why was St. Joe's, a school that competes against mostly Class LL and L schools during the regular season, allowed to drop a division? The CIAC, with its Sgt. Schultz-like know nothing/see nothing/hear nothing approach, chooses to allow its one-size-fits-all formula to determine its divisions — without a hint of an intervening human element.

The CIAC uses a "success modifier" as its alpha and omega. Translation: CIAC-designated schools of choice — defined as schools that draw more than 25 gender-specific students attend from out-of-district — are moved up one playoff class from their designated class enrollment if they've reached the state semifinals the previous two years.

Hence, St. Joseph, whose enrollment numbers must designate them as a Class S school for the upcoming season, are moved up to Class M. That's it. No discussion. The idea that St. Joe's is the three-time defending state champ? Irrelevant. Plays Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien in conference? Move along ... move along ... nothing to see here.

The CIAC and its sports committees refuse to acknowledge the flaws in their systems. To wit:

The premise that enrollment figures alone are sacrosanct is distorted. The numbers themselves are not nearly as relevant as the mechanisms behind how they are compiled. Example: A school of choice and public school might have 300 boys apiece. But if the school of choice has a talent pool extending to 20 different towns and the public school is limited to one town, the choice school has a competitive advantage.

"St. Joe's beat us in the (2018) finals (the score was 70-18)," Aresimowicz said. "One of the St. Joe's parents came up to us and apologized. She said, 'it's not fair. We have kids from 20 different towns and two states. You have your town."

Flaw No. 2: All schools of choice are not alike. Berlin and Killingly are designated as schools of choice for different reasons and missions as St. Joe's. Berlin is a "choice school" under the Sheff v O'Neill ruling that allows Hartford-area kids to choose where they want to attend school. Killingly has a vo-ag program open to kids from selected surrounding towns.

Aresimowicz: "In my 14 years at Berlin, we've had one kid who chose Berlin (under the Sheff v. O'Neill plan) who has been a starter. It's not used for athletic reasons. For the CIAC to say that we operate under the same rules as St. Joe's is ridiculous."

Killingly coach Chad Neal: "My daughter just went through our vo-ag program. Kids go through it and adhere to the educational requirements involved. It is not used for athletics. To put Killingly and St. Joe's in the same boat ... it's just not the same."

And yet here we are again having the same debate.

I ask: Isn't it about time others joined? Does the football committee have an interest in obvious competitive disadvantage? Is there a time when it will modify its "success modifier" with common sense conversation?

"You know the serenity prayer? That's pretty much how I go about things. I have no control over this," said Waterford coach John Strecker, whose program, in Class M, won its first playoff game last year. "But if I were the kind of guy who asked questions, I'd ask about why they allow such a major competitive disadvantage on the field. But I'm not in the question asking business."

Aresimowicz said it earlier: It's time for the principals to get involved. Superintendents, too. In my experience, the only administrator I've seen trying to fight the good fight is Region 18's Ian Neviaser, who partly oversees the Valley Regional/Old Lyme cooperative.

Valley/Old Lyme is a well-coached, state championship program (the Warriors won Class S in 2014). They've also been throttled several times in the playoffs by St. Joe's. Neither Valley nor Old  Lyme, two small public schools, play by the same rules as St. Joe's. It's not close.

And if it's not the administrators who need to start screaming, it's the coaches.

"The coaches don't have enough input as to what happens with football playoffs and classifications," Neal said. "We need a true coaches committee. Get a group together from around the state would come up with a plan that works. I don't think we have that."

We don't.

Meanwhile, good luck to all the Villanovas this year. You'll need it.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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