The fall sports season in District 10 enters its final chapters for 2021 as the football playoffs progress into the state semifinal round. Winter sports practices are underway. Basketball games, wrestling matches, and swimming and diving meets will start soon.

In December, the PIAA will release the full distribution of how teams will be classified in the various sports for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years.

One of the biggest questions that will be asked in northwestern Pennsylvania over the coming weeks and months is: “What will the new District 10 regions look like?”

A different question should be asked: “Isn’t it time to do away with the ‘region’ setup and go back to geographic leagues in District 10?” The answer to that inquiry is a resounding “YES.”

Prior to 2004, District 10 featured geographically-based conferences for its member teams: the Erie County League, the Mercer County Athletic Conference, the French Creek Valley Conference, the Erie Metro League and the Tri-County Athletic Conference/Northwest Conference.

Since then, District 10 has utilized class-based regions. It is a plan that is, if not identical, quite similar to the one utilized by District 7. In the current cycle, there are some sports featuring mixed classification regions with obvious geographic considerations.

Yet, those same sports also have some blatant unawareness of geography. Baseball is a prime example of both patterns.

The eight total Mercer County Class 1A and 2A teams are grouped together in a league. The 1A and 2A teams of District 10’s northern portion are also together. Class 3A Greenville, Hickory and Sharon are all in a region with 4A teams Grove City and Slippery Rock. Class 4A programs Conneaut, Meadville and Oil City are also in that league.

Franklin is Class 3A and it would be logical to think that FHS would be in that 3A-4A mixed league, where it would be with Oil City. Franklin is not. Instead, the Knights play in an all-3A league with six Erie County schools and Titusville.

Volleyball has very little geographic consideration. Franklin, Maplewood, Oil City and Titusville are all in Region 3, along with Greenville, Lakeview, Reynolds, Sharon, Sharpsville, Slippery Rock and Wilmington.

Grove City and Hickory are not in a league with Sharon and Slippery Rock. But those schools are region rivals with Warren.

Mercer and Reynolds are bordering schools. Their enrollment number differed by one girl. But they were in separate regions.

District 7 has enough schools (roughly 130-140, depending on the sport) to have single-class conferences that are not totally far-flung from a geographical standpoint.

Interestingly, District 3, the district that most closely resembles District 7 in terms of membership and geographic scope, has a series of conferences in which schools are grouped together for most, if not all, sports.

Check out the Mid-Penn Conference and Lancaster-Lebanon League. Schools are often playing the same opponents in different sports throughout the year. It is not 100 percent due to some differences in sport sponsorship, but there is not a lot of variance.

Those conferences have schools of varying sizes grouped together in a geographically sensible manner. Schools that play in a key girls soccer match that determines a league title could end up playing in boys basketball for that same league title.

Compare that to Sharon High School, which is a region “rival” with 25 different schools across fall, winter and spring sports. Sharon will compete in a league game/match/meet against every other school in Mercer County, even Commodore Perry and Jamestown. Sharon, which borders the Ohio line, also has region games/matches against Warren, Corry and Maplewood.

Oil City will play 32 different schools in league play during the course of the academic year. Oil City’s range of league opponents includes Erie, McDowell, Eisenhower and Kennedy Catholic.

District 10 has about one-third the membership total of District 7. District 7 has Pittsburgh and its sprawling suburbs in all directions. District 7 also has significant -- albeit mostly declining -- population bases in the Beaver Valley and Westmoreland County.

District 10 trying to operate like District 7 would be comparable to the Cities of Sharon or Oil City following the City of Pittsburgh’s operational blueprint. There are simply too many differences between the small city and the big metropolitan area.

However, Sharon and Oil City could exchange notes and ideas because they are comparable in size, population, etc. The same principle can be applied to PIAA district comparison.

What district is most like District 10? The answer: District 6.

While the two are not a perfect match, they are far more alike that they are not. District 10 has 45 member schools while District 6 has 50. The spread among the various classes is similar in that the bulk of the schools would be considered “small” or “mid-sized.”

District 10’s largest population center is Erie. District 6 doesn’t have an Erie, but Altoona and State College combined have a population that rivals Erie. District 6 has an overall larger population base -- approximately 700,000 residents compared to approximately 550,000 within District 10. District 10’s population density is a bit greater, but they’re both well over 100 persons per square mile.

While it is a bit subjective, most would agree that District 6 and District 10 both fare very well, pound for pound, in state playoffs or state championship events, regardless of gender or sport.

District 6 schools compete in several different conferences that have their own guidelines, membership and governance structure. Some of the conferences include teams from District 5 or District 9 and all of the leagues includes schools of varying sizes.

The Inter-County Conference features schools from Districts 5, 6 and 9. The Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference and West-PAC have teams in both Districts 5 and 6 while the Mountain Athletic Conference has Clearfield from District 9, along with several District 6 teams. The Heritage Conference is comprised of the smaller schools in and around Indiana County.

Regardless of the league, the schools are playing the same opponents each year in each sport.

This is something that District 10’s member schools should aim for. It does not have to be the “Mercer County Athletic Conference” or “Erie County League,” per se, but geographically-based all-sport leagues would be beneficial to all.

There are several supporting points for this:

1. On the whole, many have become overly preoccupied with what classification a school is in a particular sport. As the District 6 leagues show, specific classification should not be a primary consideration. Now, you would not put Homer Center (1A) in the same league as State College (6A), just as Iroquois (1A) and Erie (6A) wouldn’t be in the same league in District 10.

A question to ask is this: If we didn’t know precise enrollment numbers and classifications, who would everyone play? It’s like “How old would you be if you didn’t know when you were born?” It’s a subjective question, but it is valid.

Who would you play? Who do you think you should be playing?

Generally, that’s how the old leagues were designed. The French Creek Valley Conference had smaller, generally rural schools in Crawford County and the immediately surrounding areas.

Some years, one or two of the schools might be “AA” in a particular sport and the others were Class A, but they all played. Cochranton playing Maplewood, Cambridge Springs, Linesville, etc., made sense.

The Tri-County Athletic Conference had Franklin, Meadville, Oil City, Titusville and Warren in its larger division and schools such as Eisenhower, Rocky Grove and Youngsville in the smaller division. Sometimes Class AAA and AAAA teams played against each other in the big division or A teams vs AA squads in the smaller division, but it worked.

2. When one looks at conferences, what are the main factors?

            a. Geography – Look at the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, an NCAA Division III conference centered in western Pennsylvania. With Allegheny joining next year, there will be 11 full-time members ranging from Meadville, to Latrobe to Waynesburg, to Steubenville.

            Why is Grove City-Westminster a big rivalry? The fact that the schools are 14 miles apart has a major part in that. Allegheny coming back to the league and playing Thiel, Westminster, Grove City, Washington & Jefferson, et al, next year has already generated ample buzz in the region.

            Likewise, the Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference also has a concise geographic layout, compared to most small college conferences. That plays a big part of the great competition, rivalries and overall interest. Any time that Gannon and Mercyhurst play in anything, it’s a big deal in Erie.

Slippery Rock-Indiana (Pa.) being only 65 miles apart only fans the flames of that series.

Why is Michigan-Ohio State such a big deal? Because the states border and the schools themselves are 180 miles away. Cleveland-Pittsburgh, Boston-New York, Chicago-Green Bay/Milwaukee and Los Angeles-San Francisco are all prime examples of that at the professional level.

            Geographic proximity helps promote interest and rivalries in sports.

            b. Travel – Related to geography, but merits its own subsection.

When District 10 excommunicated Conneaut, Ohio, last month at its meeting, schools reportedly cited travel concerns. If travel is such a concern, then Warren and Hickory should not be grouped together in a volleyball league. Fairview should play Girard in boys basketball instead of trekking to Oil City.

            With attendance revenue down in all sports, mostly due to COVID-19, but also the general trend toward lower attendance, every school is likely facing budgetary concerns. Sending teams eight miles up the road or 15 miles down the road is considerably cheaper than busing a team 85 miles for a league game.

            Additionally, playing local teams will improve attendance at events. As an example, how many Warren fans (parents, students, community members) were able to attend that volleyball match at Hickory in the middle of the week? How many Oil City boys basketball fans will head to Fairview, Fort LeBoeuf or Harbor Creek?

            c. Scheduling – If the same teams are grouped together in both boys and girls basketball, as an example, using the same format enhances league play and rivalries. If on Thursday night, Team A hosts Team B in girls basketball, Team A then hosts B in the boys game Friday night.

            Let’s say it’s late in the season and on Thursday night, the Team A girls beat Team B in overtime to take over first place. The next night, A and B are tied in the standings coming into the game.

There’s going to be a lot of buzz surrounding the game as opposed to the scenario of Team A hosting Team Q from 60 miles away on Thursday night in girls basketball and then Team B visiting Team Z 48 miles away the next night on the boys’ side.

3. What About the Playoffs?

            a. District 10 has shifted to a seeded selection process for the playoffs in team sports. Because of that shift, single-class regions are not needed. There are metrics available (i.e. point systems) available to weigh a 3A team that played a lot of 3A and 4A teams against a 3A team that played more 2As, as an example.

            Using a point system to rank teams would eliminate the subjective nature. The school with the highest point average is No. 1 seed, second-highest is No. 2 and so on.

            District 6 has a system in place, as does District 3. (If you hate math, don’t click the second link.). A format could be designed for District 10 schools. Everyone would know the guidelines ahead of time and would know how many teams qualify in each class and sport.

4. What About Football?

            a. The current six-class setup presents issues at the top end and bottom end, size-wise. Only in Class 1A and 6A can teams play schools that are twice the size of another within the same classification.

            The physical nature of football adds a factor that is not present other sports. McDowell could play a 3A or 4A team in basketball or baseball or volleyball and it is not going to compromise the smaller school team’s chances in future games due to physical domination.

However, who benefited from District 10 forcing McDowell to play Conneaut, and Erie playing Harbor Creek and Oil City in mandated “crossover” football games?  

The inclusion of Butler certainly helps on the football side for the larger schools.

On the opposite end, most Class 1A programs could handle playing a couple of larger schools (2A or 3A) over the course of the season. Ten weeks’ worth of that schedule would no doubt take a considerable toll.

Having football regions/conferences that are somewhat similar but not identical to other sports is the best course of action. Not every school in District 10 sponsors football. You can still stay within the framework of this concept while also allowing some flexibility to provide the best experience possible.

A common sense approach should be taken for the 1A teams, balancing both school size and geography. In the current cycle, Mercer and Iroquois are both 1A while Lakeview and Seneca are 2A. It still makes more sense for Mercer to play Lakeview and Iroquois to face Seneca, than the 1A and 2A teams playing instead. Who would the Mercer or Lakeview kids rather play? Would Iroquois rather play against Seneca than a team from 65 miles away? (For the record, Mercer-Lakeview and Iroquois-Seneca did play each other as league foes, which is good.)

5. Miscellaneous

            a. Much like District 6, District 10 should be open to having schools from other districts play in its leagues. Bradford has played soccer in District 10 for several years, then returned to District 9 for the playoffs. Bradford and DuBois previously played District 10 schedules in football also.

            If Bradford wanted to be in a “Route 6” type of league with Warren, Corry, Titusville, etc., it should be an option. Or if Sheffield wanted to play with Eisenhower and Youngsville, that should also be given consideration.

            b. District 10 should also consider allowing schools, especially the larger ones, to enter into agreements with outside entities. Altoona and State College (of District 6) play in the District 3 Mid-Penn Conference in many sports. Central Mountain plays in a District 4 league, before returning to D-6 for postseason play.

If Erie and McDowell decided to join a league/association/scheduling alliance with other large schools, such as those in northeastern Ohio (as an example), they should have that liberty.

If Warren or Eisenhower preferred to play teams in neighboring McKean and Elk Counties during the regular season, then come back to D-10 for postseason play, that concept should not be discouraged.

If any school simply wanted to be “independent,” they should have that option.

6. Conclusion

The last two years of COVID-19 has demonstrated that schools have the ability to handle scheduling issues well. Schools have been more concerned with getting the opportunity to compete as opposed to what a particular opponent’s enrollment number is.

Adhering to rigid guidelines of classifications has hurt District 10 athletics on the field, the court, the mat and in the financial coffers.

It is folly to think that stadiums and gymnasiums will automatically be jam-packed every night as they were in 1985 by making a few schedule and league adjustments. The world has changed. As enrollments and overall population have diminished across northwestern Pennsylvania, entertainment options have skyrocketed for people of all ages.

Still, the current District 10 athletics situation can be improved for all parties involved. Returning to geographically-oriented leagues would be a major step in that direction.

It is time for District 10 to go Back to the Future!