PIAA adapts with growing pains of competitive spirit

HERSHEY – State championships for most winter sports will take place in March, with the tournaments being compressed into a span of weeks – and all of them coming on the heels of their respective district events.

Except one. When the PIAA began sanctioning competitive spirit last school year, it in essence created a free-form sport that tends to be played by its own rules.

Think about this timeline alone: Schools who take part in competitive spirit – Mifflin County and Greenwood are both among them – can compete in events almost anytime.

Those events do not have to be PIAA events – that is, they are not always exclusive to PIAA teams. It would be kind of like a varsity baseball team playing an American Legion team. In February.

It’s the season without a season.

“We totally took a different approach with this sport than we have with any of our other traditional sports,” said Melissa Mertz, associate executive director of the PIAA and the agency’s liaison at the state cheerleading championships.

The PIAA turned to UCA – the Universal Cheerleaders Association – for direction when adding spirit as a competition sport.

“Some of their advice was, if you limit this right off the bat to one particular season we’re probably not going to get it off the ground,” Mertz said, noting that most of the events do take place in the fall and winter.

“Do we need to give it a defined season like every other sport, or do we need to think outside the box?,” she explained. “I think that’s what our board came to understand.”

How lax is the sport? Mifflin County’s district championship took place in November, before the winter season ever started – officially. Greenwood took part in the District 3 event in mid-December. States was back in January – six weeks before the next PIAA winter championship event.

The District 6 event isn’t even run by the district – it’s been part of an open cheer competition each of the two years the sport has existed, with any number of non-scholastic action going on alongside the high school cheer.

“The only way we thought we’d be able to get this off and running last year is if we weren’t putting the handcuffs on the districts,” Mertz said. “I think you will see us working toward a more common ground on the district time frames,” along with other standardizations, such as score card and division size consistency.

The PIAA does it pretty much the same way – UCA all but runs the state championships.

“To say that we don’t run it isn’t totally true. We do all the scheduling, the districts run their events,” Mertz notes. The PIAA still defines the rules and the qualifers, she says.

“It’s really that we rely on UCA to handle the judging of it,” she said. “We’re very open minded. We don’t consider ourselves the experts; we needed to rely on somebody to help us with it. It was very new to us.”

After the first year, the PIAA reacted to complaints of an unfair advantage that teams with boys had – it’s a girls sport for classification purposes, but is co-ed – and created a co-ed division for the second year.

But there are no breakdowns by school size, as other sports have – Mifflin County and Greenwood are in the same classification despite their disparity in size. Squad size is the divider.

“Now, we’re really starting to see we probably do need classifications. We would probably do two squad sizes within each class,” Mertz said. “There has been concern about that. But when we first started, again, we were working with UCA and they were telling us, ‘You’ll actually find that a lot of the big schools will compete in a small varsity competition.’ It’s really strictly based on squad size, so that’s what we went with.”

Competitive spirit stands out because of the number of schools who make it to states – 120 of 260 schools who participate, or 46 percent. By comparison, there are more than 700 basketball schools statewide in each gender, but even among four classes only 128 teams in each gender advance to state play.

“We grew from last year, we felt we could just grow it a little bit and we had the opportunity to go to two days. So we thought, ‘Why not?,'” Mertz said. “I guess probably because it hasn’t been under the same auspices as the other sports in terms of meeting that formula. Probably as we go forward into the classifications some of that will change.”