Is a separation of Ohio public and private schools inevitable for state tournaments?

CINCINNATI – The question was inevitable.

The topic was prickly. Awkward laughter followed.

“How much time do we have here?” Ohio High School Athletic Association Commissioner Dr. Dan Ross said rhetorically during an interview. “Here we go.”

OHSAA Commissioner Dr. Dan Ross has worked to keep public and private schools unified in state tournaments.

When it comes to the discussion of the risk of separating state tournaments by public and non-public schools in Ohio, Ross is going over a subject that has become a professional mission for him and his staff for over seven years.

RELATED: Area schools offer perspective on competitive balance.

In 2010, the OHSAA’s Competitive Balance Committee was formed in response to a growing number of public schools that believed many non-public schools had an unfair advantage in postseason tournaments due to the larger geographic area from which non-public schools draw.

Moreover, the concern is the number of state championships won by non-public schools is much higher than the percentage of non-public schools within the OHSAA membership.

That concern has been active for decades. Prior to the multiplier formulas, schools voted in 1979 and 1993 against creating separate private and public postseason tournaments.

Ross worked to avoid such pressure from a growing contingent more recently to split. In May 2014 -- the fourth attempt at passing the competitive balance measure -- competitive balance became part of the popular jargon in Ohio high school athletics.

As the OHSAA prepares to announce divisional breakdowns adjusted for competitive balance for the first time this April, Ross is adamant the membership made the right decision, even if some aspects are imperfect at the start.

“Our tournaments across the country are looked at as being some of the absolute best,” Ross told WCPO.com in February.

“We have schools that are public and non-public that are playing all year. Then to turn around and say ‘OK, when we get to the tournaments we don’t want them to play together. I guess what we would rather say is ‘let’s keep everybody in the sand box. Let’s try to make sure the rules for playing in the sand box are maybe more fair than what many of our schools think they were.'”

Some area athletic directors believe a hypothetical separation is still in the back of some minds if this competitive balance measure doesn’t succeed in its objective of giving public schools better opportunities in the state tournament.

There is still much work to be completed, especially with large Division I programs that aren’t directly impacted.

Sycamore football coach Scott Dattilo is indifferent to a split but says there is a discrepancy between enrollment levels between the top and bottom 72 schools.

Sycamore football coach Scott Dattilo

“I like the competitive aspect of playing against the best high school teams whether public or private,” said Dattilo, who does not have open enrollment in his district. “We all play for the same prize at whatever enrollment level we’re at. But we don’t all follow the same rules.”

When some districts are bound by geography while others aren’t, there is complexity in competing for state titles.

“We are fooling ourselves if we say it’s even,” Dattilo said.

Competitive balance may be one of the last opportunities if another solution isn’t discovered.

“The strength of the OHSAA is the member schools,” Wyoming Athletic Director Jan Wilking said. “We all play by the same rules, same bylaws, same accountability. When we vote to have change... we have a set of bylaws that is representative of good for all student-athletes -- no matter public or private. That being said, many other states do divide public versus non-public championships and it works for them. I believe that competitive balance is the last attempt to level the playing field before there is an even larger movement to divide the state tournaments.”

Summit Country Day Athletic Director Gregory Dennis is not in favor of competitive balance but he doesn’t favor splitting the state tournaments.

Summit Country Day Athletic Director Gregory Dennis

“I think people in Columbus had to do something,” Dennis said. “They have to do something to keep from separating.”

That’s the Catch-22 for several area schools. They may not like competitive balance, but an alternative solution is elusive.

Dennis doesn’t want separation because he wants his student-athletes to play teams and individuals with different socioeconomic backgrounds. He said society “doesn’t need more divisions.”

Cincinnati Country Day girls’ soccer coach Theresa Hirschauer doesn’t like the idea of a split.

“If that happens -- I think private schools should leave the OHSAA which would be an incredible shame,” Hirschauer said.

Tune into 9 on Your Side at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9 to see a special on competitive balance in Ohio high school sports.

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