Out-of-state games: An in thing?

Paul Sacco 's St. Joseph team might play in Ohio this fall. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
Paul Sacco 's St. Joseph team might play in Ohio this fall. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
Posted: January 27, 2014

It's not a big deal when baseball teams travel to South Carolina for spring break and play opponents from Georgia and Tennessee.

It's not a big deal when basketball teams travel to Florida over the winter holidays and play opponents from Indiana and Virginia.

But it's a big deal when football teams announce plans to do the same sort of thing.

It irritates some folks.

It intrigues others.

Some see it as a dangerous trend.

Others see it as a refreshing change.

"It could really help our program," St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said of his team's tentative plan to play at Steubenville, Ohio, in October.

Sacco is right. This could be a big boost for the Wildcats - and that's part of the reason that some people in South Jersey football circles have such a negative reaction to this development.

St. Joseph already projects as the likely No. 1 team in South Jersey in 2014 - and maybe in 2015, too - and the program's profile only will rise from taking a most-expenses-paid trip to face an Ohio power on a Friday night in front of 9,000 spectators as well as a regional television audience.

That kind of experience can be attractive to seventh and eighth graders, and their parents, especially the kind of student-athletes who might be choosing a high school in large part because of the visibility and strength of the football team.

Holy Spirit coach John Iannucci understands that. He started this out-of-state movement by declining to play St. Joseph in a Cape-Atlantic League crossover game and opting to open the 2014 and 2015 seasons against Pennsylvania's Malvern Prep.

Iannucci said the Spartans needed to use the open date in their schedule to arrange for a high-profile game after the Cape-Atlantic's realignment moved the perennial state power to the National Division.

"Being sent down to the smaller division has only one advantage, and that's to play an out-of-state game," Iannucci said. "In a different division, we would be glad to play St. Joe's."

Iannucci said Holy Spirit needed a game against an opponent such as Malvern Prep - which was 8-2 last season and beat eventual state champion St. Joseph's Prep - to underscore the larger goals of the program.

"Not everybody is scared of St. Joe's like they think," Iannucci said in a comment that's still reverberating off the walls of the Wildcats' weight room. "Playing them in our current situation has no benefit if we are to chase the goals of the program."

Holy Spirit's decision could turn out to be a big-time benefit to St. Joseph. The Wildcats are looking at a nearly free trip to play against an opponent with a rich tradition and a fanatical fan base.

Steubenville is one of the most fabled programs in Ohio. The Big Red football team also was in the middle of a rape case that drew national attention in 2012.

Combined with membership in the Cape-Atlantic's American Division - with games against big schools such as Millville, Atlantic City, and Absegami - this out-of-state stuff could take St. Joseph's program to another level.

"It could be a great experience for our kids," Sacco said of the potential trip to Steubenville. "I was talking to some coaches who played there, and they said there will be 9,000 people in the stands, all dressed in red and white."

Sacco said the trip still was not official and needed to be approved by St. Joseph's advisory board and administration. The Wildcats also could end up playing a Philadelphia Catholic League program such as St. Joseph's Prep or Roman Catholic.

This could be a two-year quirk of the Cape-Atlantic schedule. Or it could be the start of something significant on the South Jersey football scene: a trend toward non-public schools looking to arrange nontraditional games that would serve to raise the profile of their football programs and further separate them from their public-school counterparts.

That's the rule, not the exception, in North Jersey.

And that's the reason there's such a chasm between the Don Bosco Preps of that world and the public-school teams.

St. Augustine Prep is looking hard at this situation. The Hermits wouldn't mind the wiggle room to arrange an interesting out-of-area game or two.

And who's to say that in the next scheduling cycle for the West Jersey Football League - especially if the Cape-Atlantic is approved for merger - that programs such as Camden Catholic, Paul VI, and Bishop Eustace won't weigh the value of a showcase game?

There are public-school coaches out there, such as Timber Creek's Rob Hinson, who would love the opportunity to play an out-of-state game. He's not alone, either.

But he's in the minority. Most coaches and most administrators are comfortable with a "closed" schedule such as the one in the West Jersey, in which teams will play all nine regular-season games within the league.

That's clearly the preference in the Colonial Conference. That's why officials in that league voted down a proposal to form a loose alliance with the Cape-Atlantic for crossover games.

Colonial officials didn't want to play Buena. They sure don't want to play Steubenville, Ohio.

To each his own. Many public-school coaches and administrators (and some non-public folks, too) don't like the idea of football programs extending their reach beyond league and state boundaries in the regular season.

They have a valid point of view. They believe there's enough competition and tradition right here in South Jersey.

And they could care less what some private schools do with their schedules.

But the rub comes when some stud eighth grader in their district starts thinking that a bus trip, overnight stay, and showcase game before nearly 10,000 people and television cameras sure sounds like fun.





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