NJSIAA Makes Radical, Sweeping Changes to Football and Wrestling, Nixes New Transfer Rules
*This is a breaking news story that will be continually updated with reaction from Shore Conference athletic directors and coaches*
The NJSIAA on Monday voted to pass legislations in football and wrestling that will result in drastic changes to the landscapes of the respective sports, while also striking down a proposal for tougher transfer rules at the association's 98th annual meeting at the Pines Manor in Edison.
In the most controversial decision, member schools voted 215-128 with two abstentions to create a separate state-wide, non-public football conference starting next year. Locally, Red Bank Catholic, St. John Vianney, Mater Dei Prep and Donovan Catholic would no longer be in the Shore Conference for football, and would instead be a part of the new parochial conference with its own set of bylaws and schedules.
Non-public schools would still be allowed to play public schools as long as both schools agreed to it.
The new legislation still has to be approved by the State Commissioner of Education, and several legal hurdles will almost certainly be in the way as non-public schools around New Jersey are set to fight the ruling.
"There is a lot of blame on both sides (public and non-public) and if you have a lot of people not following the rules, people become unhappy and this is what happens," Red Bank Catholic athletic director Joe Montano said.
"My concern is that it's going to continue and once you separate all of these non-public schools, it's going to become like an AAU league. We've seen New York and Pennsylvania separate their non-publics and what happens is the top kids all want to go play in the best league. It's supposed to make things more fair, but more likely the discrepancy is just going to get bigger.
"I'm concerned this decision completely changes the landscape and it's going to be the end of the NJSIAA as we know it."
Red Bank Catholic won the 2014 NJSIAA Non-Public Group III title, the first for a Shore Conference parochial school since 1980. The Caseys had a 40-game winning streak against Shore Conference opponents that was snapped late in the 2014 season. St. John Vianney reached the Non-Public Group III final this season for the first time since 1982, and has won 20 straight games against Shore Conference teams. The Lancers fell to DePaul 40-17 in Saturday's championship game.
"At Red Bank Catholic, we've played Jackson Memorial in each of the last two years and those were great games," Montano said. "We played Manalapan in each of the last two years in front of 4,000 people. We played Red Bank Regional and they played us great and beat us and that was a huge moment for their program.
"In the Shore Conference, we are known to take care of our own problems. We've been proactive about addressing issues that other areas have let grow and now we're getting lumped in with everyone else. It's understandable that people are upset about the way some schools do business, but that's just not the way we do business here."
In wrestling, members voted 216-121 with eight abstentions to create four separate districts that feed into one region composed entirely of non-public schools for the NJSIAA Individual Championships. The state tournament would still have wresters from all schools, public and non-public competing for the same title in the 14 different weight classes.
"I'm shocked at how overwhelming of a vote it was," said Raritan head coach Rob Nucci, who has led the Rockets to a Group II title during his 15 years at the helm. "As a team, don't wrestle (the non-public schools), it's as simple as that. But as an individual you have to see those wrestlers somewhere down the line if you want to win a state championship."
"About a year ago (Red Bank coach and Shore Conference Wrestling Coaches Association President) Scott Ferris came up with an idea to get 39 teams in each region and separate the powers the best you can. We were told that would be too major of a change, and now this happens?"
In the Shore Conference, that would effect Christian Brothers Academy, Red Bank Catholic, St. John Vianney and Donovan Catholic, which are the only local schools with varsity wrestling programs. St. Rose has competed at the sub-varsity level for the past two seasons while it tries to build it program back up.
CBA had eight wrestlers advance out of the District 22 tournament with three champions, and sent four wrestlers to the state tournament out of Region VI, including champions Sebastian Rivera and Rich Koehler. Rivera and Koehler also medaled at the state tournament.
St. John Vianney had five wrestlers advance out of the District 21 Tournament and sent one wrestler to the state tournament, heavyweight Micah Clarke.
For those that oppose the wrestling split, a major reason is the perceived watering down of state qualifiers. Under the old format, a total of 336 wresters qualified for the state tournament. With the non-public region send the top four finishers in each weight class to the state tournament instead of the usual top three, that number jumps to 350. Wildcard spots would push the number close to 400. That may not be a bad thing.
"There's no way anyone can spin it to me and say it isn't good for the kids," said former New Jersey Wrestling Coaches Association president Dan O'Cone, who coached at Point Beach and Brick Memorial, winning three NJSIAA Group Championships at the latter. "It doesn't water it down, because every single region around the state has a kid that finishes fourth or even fifth that could have placed in regions or states."
"It supports wrestling, and I think it will help it grow instead of becoming an elitist sport," O'Cone said. "This is a sport for every person. You don't have to be eight feet tall to be a great wrestler. You can what you are, and that's what the sport promotes. Jake Cairns can win a state title from little Point Beach High School. It's becoming a sport where if you don't go to places like Bergen Catholic or Don Bosco Prep you're not going to have any success. We have to move away from that."
The Shore Conference has never been a league dominated by non-public schools in either wrestling or football. The same can be said for many conferences in the state outside of the Big North where powerhouse programs Bergen Catholic, Don Bosco Prep, St. Joseph's Regional, DePaul and Paramus Catholic have created a contentious environment with area public schools that feel they can not safety compete.
Bergen Catholic has risen to national prominence in wrestling over the last five seasons, and Don Bosco and DePaul also have powerhouse programs. Additionally, Delbarton in Morris County and St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, for wrestling, are among New Jersey's best teams.
"The issue that Region II (which includes many of the Bergen County schools, including Bergen Catholic and Don Bosco Prep) is having now is something Region VI (Shore Conference) has been having forever. We have powerhouses like Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial, Southern, Howell, and we can't move them to create more competitive balance."
Stunningly, a proposal for tougher transfer rules was struck down with a 244-99 vote with one abstention. Currently, varsity athletes who transfer without a bona fide chase of residency are required to sit 30 days. Part of the new proposal was institute a mandatory postseason ban.
There appeared to be a connection between levelling the playing field by isolating the non-publics and strengthening rules preventing programs from poaching players from other schools, but there was a disconnect in Monday's vote.
"There are no angels on the other side of the street," Montano said. "If a backup tackle is stuck behind (current Notre Dame offensive lineman and former Caseys standout) Quentin Nelson and he leaves Red Bank Catholic to go play for somebody else, the public schools line up too. Anybody that wants to say they are completely innocent is lying to you."
Two other legislations that were voted on were to approve an early start date for the fall season and an early start date for winter sports practices to begin. The proposal to start the fall season early passed 205-138 with two abstentions, and the earlier start for winter sport passed 279-66.
Staff Writer Matt Manley also contributed to this post.