A stumbling block to possible Cape-WJFL merger

Posted: September 23, 2012

There's only one problem with the Cape-Atlantic League's potential merger with the West Jersey Football League: The Cape's non-public programs.

And there's only one problem with the Cape's non-public programs: They're good.

Public schools don't mind playing non-public schools as long as they can beat them. But when the non-publics win big (as St. Joseph and Holy Spirit do) or dream big (as St. Augustine Prep does), then scheduling becomes an issue.

The Cape-Atlantic League spent months trying to come up with a new alignment for football before this season, and all that internal wrangling wasn't because officials couldn't decide whether Absegami should play Egg Harbor Township.

They couldn't decide what to do with St. Joseph, Holy Spirit, and St. Augustine Prep.

The solution was pretty radical: Two divisions divided strictly by recent power of the programs.

As a result, St. Joseph (student population in grades 10-12: 281) and Holy Spirit (467) are in the American Division with Egg Harbor Township (1,913), Atlantic City (1,496), Millville (1,424), and Absegami (1,364).

St. Joseph is classified as Group 1. Holy Spirit is Group 2. Egg Harbor, Atlantic City, Millville, and Absegami are Group 5.

Egg Harbor is more than six times the size of St. Joseph. Those programs are in the same division because the realignment was based strictly on playoff power points over the previous two seasons - the top nine programs in one division, the bottom nine programs in the other.

That's not how the WJFL does business.

The solution worked for the Cape-Atlantic because it appeased some of the smaller public schools that were tired of losing by five touchdowns (or more) to St. Joseph and Holy Spirit, and it also appealed to the competitive nature of those associated with the Wildcats and Spartans programs.

But that couldn't happen in the WJFL.

Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell, one of the WJFL's four commissioners, thinks the Cape teams would be a "good fit" with the WJFL, creating some new and vibrant rivalries.

Shawnee and Mainland would be a good match. They are two Group 4 schools with rich traditions and similarities in sending districts.

Same goes for Group 5 teams Cherokee and Absegami (which have history) and Group 3's Cumberland and Bridgeton (ditto, big time), and maybe even Group 3 Delsea and emerging Group 2 power Cedar Creek.

But WJFL bylaws prohibit games between teams that are separated by more than one group in size difference, unless both schools agree.

So St. Joseph could play only Group 1 and 2 teams unless both schools agreed. Holy Spirit could play only 1s, 2s, and 3s.

And so if the merger happens, the WJFL would be right back where the Cape was before this season: trying to strike a scheduling balance between school size and strength of program, and trying to find enough small public-school programs that would be competitive with St. Joseph and, to a lesser extent, Holy Spirit.

St. Joseph is a major problem when it comes to scheduling because the Wildcats are sub-Group 1 in size, and Group 5-plus in strength. They've won 14 state titles, including three in a row. They are the No. 1 team in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings - which is where they ended last season.

Holy Spirit has won two consecutive state titles and three in the last six seasons. The No. 9 Spartans are 0-2 this season but only because they lost to No. 5 Hammonton in overtime and to No. 1 St. Joseph by 7-0 on a touchdown in the final 15 seconds.

St. Augustine is a Group 4 program, so there's a wide range of possible opponents. But with a new coaching staff and a major commitment from the administration, the Hermits are a gathering storm in the sport - with aspirations of statewide or even East Coast prominence.

All of which sounds great, until it comes time to persuade public-school programs that might be losing prestige and student-athletes to the Hermits to put them on the schedule.

Some folks think a nine-team, all-non-public division could be a solution if the Cape merges with the WJFL in 2014. But Mitchell rightly points out that the size differential (ranging from St. Joseph in Group 1 to St. Augustine, Paul VI, and Notre Dame in Group 4) and geographic distance (ranging from Holy Spirit in Absecon to Notre Dame in Lawrenceville) fly in the face of the WJFL's bylaws - and could violate the state constitution, too.

Maybe a solution could be to create two divisions of non-publics, with a South Division of St. Joseph, Holy Spirit, St. Augustine Prep, and Gloucester Catholic - which is pushing into Gloucester County with a proposed athletic campus in Deptford - and a North Division of Bishop Eustace, Camden Catholic, Holy Cross, Paul VI, and Notre Dame.

But there's still a wide spread in size, and persuading Gloucester Catholic and Holy Cross to agree to such an arrangement might as tough as finding three Group 1 teams that would be competitive with St. Joseph.

And let's not forget the other side of this issue: It's not as if St. Joseph and Holy Spirit want to play overmatched Group 1 and Group 2 programs and win regularly by 35 points.

If this merger went through, the Wildcats and Spartans probably would like to "play up" against the likes of Delsea and Timber Creek and Moorestown, as examples.

But who is to say those teams would be willing to "play down?" Among other issues, there are power points to consider.

This merger is far from a done deal. Oddly, if St. Joseph, Holy Spirit, and St. Augustine were average football programs, it would happen in a heartbeat.

But then the Cape probably wouldn't be looking to join the WJFL in the first place.

Contact 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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