Many coaches and athletic directors at Wichita-area private high schools feel like they have come under attack.
A proposal that would put a private school’s team in a larger classification based on its state-level success seems to be on the fast track to adoption after the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s executive board didn’t stand in its way Wednesday.
There has long been a debate on how to treat the success of private schools, but Paola athletic director Jeff Hines and Girard Middle School principal Randy Heatherly were able to capture just how much dissatisfaction there is with the current classification system. Their December survey revealed 82 percent of KSHSAA high schools that responded said they felt some type of change — called a modifier in other states — is needed.
Those at private schools want their say, too.
“Right now we’re only hearing one side of the issue,” Independent athletic director Kurt McAfee said. “I feel like it would only be fair for private schools to have that same time to go in front of the executive committee and have our voice. If we sit by on the sidelines and let the public schools do all of the yelling and screaming, then it will be easier for them to make the change.”
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Much of Hines’ complaints about private schools is their disproportionate amount of success compared to public-school peers.
From 2007-16, in classes where public and private schools compete against each other, 21 private schools won 240 — or 39.2 percent — of championships in all KSHSAA sports.
Private schools had the most success in Class 5A, where St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Carroll, Kapaun Mount Carmel, Bishop Miege, and St. James Academy combined to win 52.5 percent of championships during the 10-year span. Those five schools were particularly dominant in the 10 girls sports, winning 67 of 100 championships.
Private schools have won at least 40 percent of championships in 10 of 21 sports, as they were most dominant in girls soccer (a private school has won every 5A or 4-1A title since 2006), boys soccer (a 75-percent championship rate), and boys golf (a 68-percent championship rate).
On the other hand, even with Miege’s recent dominance in football, private schools have won 19 percent of football championships — its third-lowest championship rate in 21 sports.
Counting state championships in all sports the last 10 years reveals an even bigger disparity between the top private schools and the top public schools. The top six programs are private schools with Aquinas leading the way with 54 championships, followed by Collegiate (30), Miege (25), Carroll (22), Topeka Hayden (20) and St. James (18). The top public school during that span is Baldwin (17).
“If you’re a small-town Kansas kid, you don’t get the opportunity of dreaming of winning championships or qualifying for the state tournament because a private school is in their sub-state,” Hines said. “And that’s not a defeatist mentality at all. That’s just reality. It’s just not realistic to think you can win a state title because look at who’s in your class.”
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Mike Gehrer, football coach at private-school Collegiate, isn’t convinced the problem in high school sports is as simple as a public-private debate.
“If you were a basketball player in the ’90s in Wichita and you wanted to play for one of the best coaches, then parents were making the decision to take their kids to South High School,” Gehrer said. “The same thing happened not too long ago with Hutchinson football. Nobody says anything about that and that happens all the time.
“Students shouldn’t be penalized because the adults have a problem with successful programs. When people create successful programs, I don’t care if it’s public or private, people are drawn to them and people should have the choice of making a decision on where they want to go.”
Carroll football coach Alan Schuckman feels like he is being penalized for building a winning program. He also doesn’t understand the notion that he has an inherent advantage because he coaches at a private school.
“We rarely, if ever, get transfers and most of our kids have been in Catholic school since they were in kindergarten,” Schuckman said. “And I’m not smart enough to figure out who’s going to be a good athlete in kindergarten by the time they’re in high school. I feel like we’ve built our program up the right way and now we’re being somewhat penalized for it.”
Northwest football coach Steve Martin also doesn’t see the logic of saying Carroll has an advantage over public schools in the City League.
“We had some lopsided losses to Carroll when I first got here, but there wasn’t ever a time where I said, ‘Oh my God, we can’t compete with them because they’re a private school,’ ” Martin said. “We just had to get better and figure out a way to beat them. I never thought they had an unfair advantage because they were a private school.”
Proponents of the modifier argue that private schools that are located in large metropolitan areas like Wichita and Kansas City draw from a much larger population, therefore attracting a different caliber of athlete, compared to rural and suburban cities competing in the same classification.
At Collegiate, Gehrer doesn’t see a difference in the caliber of athlete at his school compared to public schools like Andale and Buhler.
“Our kids work just as hard as kids in public schools,” Gehrer said. “They do the work we ask them to do and put in the time and effort and that’s not going to change if we have a modifier on us or not.”
Collegiate athletic director and boys basketball coach Mitch Fiegel can understand some of the gripes, but he also points out no matter how you classify teams, there will always be schools that have advantages over others, regardless of if they are private or not.
“To think that you can level the playing surface for everyone is just crazy,” Fiegel said. “People have been trying to figure that out for a thousand years and it hasn’t worked yet. I don’t know how we’re going to figure that out now. I just don’t think you can do it in a competitive environment.”
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So what would a success modifier mean for Wichita-area private schools?
Tradition-rich programs such as Carroll football (to Class 6A), Kapaun golf (to 6A), Independent girls tennis (to 4A), and Collegiate boys basketball (to 4A- I) would all likely be bumped up one classification.
“To be honest, I believe we’ve had teams in the past that could have beat anybody in the state of Kansas, I don’t care what classification they put us in,” Schuckman said. “But year-in, year-out? I don’t know if that will be the case.”
Fiegel thinks the success modifier is sending the wrong message.
“To me, that tells me that it’s OK to be a private school, just don’t win,” Fiegel said. “But if you win, then we’re going to put this modifier on you. Just think about that and how odd it sounds.”
The issue seems to be out of their control, however. A Kansas statute has to be reworded and passed that takes out a reference to student enrollment in determining classifications. Hines thinks he’ll get approval during the legislative session.
Once that happens, public schools vastly outnumber private schools in the state and if the modifier goes to a statewide vote, which is increasingly likely, there seems to be enough support to push the new rule through.
So what does that mean for the future of private schools in the area? Their coaches and ADs aren’t sure, but what they are sure of is that a modifier will not change how they operate.
“The only thing I can do is the same thing I’ve done for the last 28 years, and that’s focus on my team and the process that it takes to build a team and help it become as good as it can be,” Fiegel said. “Everything else is outside of my control.”
“At the end of the day,” Kapaun athletic director John Heise said, “whatever they decide is not going to change how we prepare our kids for life outside of high school and how we prepare good stewards for the Diocese of Wichita and for Christ. Right now, we’re all just kind of taking the wait-and-see approach, but it’s not going to change how we do things at Kapaun.”
39.2 percent: State championships private schools have won in classes where they compete against public schools since 2007
67 percent: Girls state championships private schools have won in Class 5A since 2007
Percentages of state championships won by private schools since 2007
52.5 in Class 5A
39.5 in Class 4A
25.2 in Class 3A
32.0 in Class 2A
Percentages of state championships won by private schools since 2007
100 — Girls soccer
75 — Boys soccer
68 — Boys golf
53 — Girls tennis
49 — Baseball
48 — Girls golf
48 — Volleyball
43 — Girls cross country
40 — Boys cross country
35 — Boys basketball
30 — Girls bowling
28 — Girls basketball
25 — Girls track and field
23 — Softball
23 — Boys track and field
20 — Boys bowling
19 — Football
10 — Boys swimming
10 — Wrestling
State championships won by schools competing in Class 5A and under since 2007
1. St. Thomas Aquinas ,54
2. Collegiate, 30
3. Miege, 25
4. Carroll, 22
5. Topeka Hayden, 20
6. St. James, 18
7. Baldwin, 17
8. Silver Lake, 16
9. Andale, 14
10. Kapaun, 13