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Private Schools Present Uneven Playing Field
When Whitinsville Christian hoisted the state championship trophy in boys basketball last weekend, there was at least one observer who was not overly surprised, Nipmuc head basketball coach Jim Grant. Grant could see the writing on the wall back in December.
"I don't see anyone touching Whitinsville Christian," he told the Town Crier in an interview at the beginning of the season. "They have kids from all over, including a couple of boys that transferred over there from Mendon and Upton," he said. "They are the premiere program."
The Christian school captured the Division III Central Mass district title for the second straight year and for the fifth time since 2005. Its roster included a star forward who is 6'6" and from Paxton, meaning he likely would have gone to Wachusett Regional High School had he not opted for Whitinsville. In Division I, Milford high head coach Steve Manguso and his coaching counterparts deal with a similar powerhouse in St. John's of Shrewsbury. "I've gotten (St. John's) a few times and it was fun, but more often than not you are playing a county All-Star team," he said. "The numbers are going to get you when we are working with probably 300 kids and they are working with 1200."
St. John's enrollment, which is listed at just under 1100, is exclusively male and is drawn from more than 50 communities around Central and Eastern Massachusetts. The Pioneers have won four straight district championships in basketball and lost to another private school with a strong athletic program, St. John's Prep of Danvers, in the state finals this year. In the past five years, St. John's of Shrewsbury has won district or state titles, or both, in basketball, lacrosse, baseball, skiing, soccer, golf, track and field, wrestling, and tennis.
"It would level the playing field if there was a public school and private school state tournament," said Milford High athletic director Rich Piergustavo. "It's good to play against schools like that in the regular season, playing the best always helps you get better. However, for the majority of schools it is impossible to compete against them."
Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), the governing body for high school sports in the Bay State, said the idea of separating the state tournaments has been broached recently. "We had a board meeting and a couple of athletic directors presented a case for having separate tournaments," he said, adding that any change of that scale would likely take several years to implement. "The board was not sure what the process would be, you'd have to come up with a formula."
The MIAA first began to hear talk of the idea of separating the private schools last season when Central Catholic claimed the boys' basketball state championship with a star player from New Hampshire. Last weekend in Worcester, four of the six teams that won state basketball titles were parochial schools. Wetzel said a number of private schools have students and student athletes from out-of-state. "The fact is a private school does not have any boundary," he said.
"I've dealt with it for 27 years and it's ridiculous," said Manguso. "The Catholics draw kids from a high socioeconomic class and are able to give scholarships to take care of inner-city kids and others who might not be able to afford to attend otherwise."
"I would like to see an even playing field," said Grant. "I would just as soon have each town keep its own players; you can't keep taking the best players from different towns and putting them into one school."
Wetzel said the issue would likely go before the tournament committee but would require a vote from the body as a whole in order to pass. He was not certain whether such a move would be met with resistance from the private schools. "Like lots of other things we do, especially if they are big changes, it would be a mixed bag," he said. "There would be pros and cons from everyone and discussion about, if there is an inherent advantage from the private schools, whether there is another way to deal with it."
A change, if it happens at all, seems far from imminent and Wetzel all but ruled out anything happening within the next two years. In the meantime, public schools like Milford and Nipmuc will have to continue to bring their "A" game when playing the private school powerhouses.




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