Phil Anastasia: S. Jersey-only playoff could be a good thing

Non-Public football schools could face more competition by staying in their region.

Posted: February 11, 2012

This might sound strange coming from a guy who has been screaming that public-school football teams should be playing for state titles, but the elimination of state championships for Non-Public programs could be a good thing.

That's because there are situations, and this is one of them, when a South Jersey title can mean more than a state title.

That surely would be the case for St. Joseph of Hammonton. For the Wildcats, winning a state title under the NJSIAA's old playoff system usually involved beating St. Mary's of Rutherford by 40 points. Or 50.

Now, under the proposed playoff format that the NJSIAA's executive committee is expected to approve in April, winning a South Jersey title for the Wildcats would involve beating Camden Catholic or Holy Spirit or Holy Cross - or, more likely, all three.

Anything that creates strong tournaments, increases rivalries, and strengthens the competition and the blood flow in this part of the state is a good thing. And the new format, which likely will take effect in September, should do that.

Under the old format, St. Joe's won 13 titles since 1993. All of them were in Non-Public 1 or Non-Public 2. Holy Cross won Non-Public 2 titles in 2007 and 2008, and Holy Spirit won a Non-Public 2 title last season.

You can't tell me those crowns - despite the cachet associated with the designation "state champion" - represented the culmination of a better season than winning a true South Jersey B title by emerging as the top team in a crowded, competitive, familiar field.

Now, winning a Non-Public 3 title, as Holy Spirit did in 2007 (beating Immaculata) and 2010 (beating St. Joseph of Montvale), that's a different story.

And the loss of that opportunity for South Jersey teams that might have been placed in Non-Public 3 is a negative aspect of the proposed new system.

But guess what? Zero South Jersey teams were in Non-Public 3 last season. And given enrollment trends at powerful programs such as Camden Catholic and Holy Spirit - well, at pretty much all private schools for that matter - it's likely that no South Jersey teams would be in that group in the foreseeable future.

So what's the difference between the old Non-Public 2 and the new South Jersey B?

The big difference is that there won't be a Non-Public 1 anymore - and amen to that - so St. Joseph would move into South Jersey B with Holy Spirit, Camden Catholic, Holy Cross, Bishop Eustace, and Gloucester Catholic (along with Mater Dei, Cardinal McCarrick, and Pingry).

That's a terrific group, filled with old rivals and new nemeses, with history and geography and the ongoing battle to "attract" top eighth graders forming the compelling backstory for every tournament.

That's a far better tournament than what has been playing out in Non-Public 1 and Non-Public 2 for the last 10 or 15 years.

And there's something to be said for the creation of a South Jersey A, too, since that gets Paul VI and St. Augustine Prep away from Don Bosco Prep and Bergen Catholic in Non-Public 4.

Those North Jersey programs have become so powerful - Don Bosco has been ranked No. 1 in the nation in each of the last two seasons - the prospect of beating them has become more far-fetched than a South Jersey Group B basketball team beating St. Anthony of Jersey City.

Here's the thing, too: If the NJSIAA ever gets around to establishing state championships for public-school football programs - and it could happen in 2014, since the vote was awfully close in December - this new sectional format for Non-Publics will serve as the perfect tournament to determine the state finalists.

Just add one more game in each group - South Jersey B champion vs. North Jersey B champion, and South Jersey A champion vs. North Jersey B champion - and voilĂ , we're back where we were in 2011. Only better.

In the meantime, South Jersey nonpublic football will get a little more parochial, a little narrower, a little more crowded. We won't see Holy Spirit vs. St. Joseph of Montvale anymore, which is not such a good thing.

We also won't see St. Joseph of Hammonton vs. St. Mary of Rutherford (51-0 final last season), or Holy Spirit vs. Montclair Kimberley (62-13 semifinal last season), which is a good thing.

But we could see St. Joseph vs. Bishop Eustace, and Holy Spirit vs. Holy Cross, and Camden Catholic vs. Gloucester Catholic, and Paul VI vs. St. Augustine - and that's just in the first round - which would be a great thing.


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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