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IMHO: In Rejecting MRA Co-op, NHIAA Forgets Its History



Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, May 05, 2018

The heavy-handedness of it galls me the most.

The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association has a history of my-way-or-the-highway governance. It has done a better job in recent years of being a more receptive host to the high schools that are its members. But the recent decision to deny seven Mount Royal Academy student-athletes — four of them seniors — an opportunity to form a co-operative baseball team with Kearsarge High comes right out of the association’s old playbook.

The NHIAA doesn’t fare well on the fairness scale when compared with how the Vermont Principals Association works to provide playing opportunities, particularly to athletes at its tiniest schools. Those are the ones most often in need of options, not the imaginary athletic behemoths Granite State sports bosses profess to fear when the topic of co-ops comes up.

That’s because the VPA usually puts the student first. Quite often, only the NHIAA matters to the NHIAA.

As staff writer Josh Weinreb reported last week, Mount Royal is a Catholic school of 56 students in Sunapee. It sponsors only boys and girls basketball as varsity sports because it requires just five kids to field a squad. MRA has no other varsity programs, largely because it lacks the athletes to fill rosters. The campus is up the hill but down the pecking order from Sunapee High, owner of enough NHIAA state championship banners to cover nearly every square foot of its Sherburne Gym in green and white felt.

That apparently isn’t good enough for Sunapee Principal Sean Moynihan, one of the leading forces in rejecting Mount Royal’s co-op application. As part of the NHIAA’s ruling, Moynihan faulted MRA student-athletes for choosing a private school with fewer athletic opportunities over public ones in home communities with more options.

“There’s a difference between ‘you don’t like the opportunity’ and ‘you don’t have the opportunity,’ ” Moynihan told the Valley News.

That’s an impressive slice of baloney from someone in the hierarchy of an organization that has welcomed private schools to its leagues since its inception.

The NHIAA was founded in 1947, and over that time it has usually treated private and public schools as equals. A Catholic school, Berlin’s now-defunct Notre Dame High, won the first 18 NHIAA boys hockey championships, the first in ’47. Two other Catholic schools, Concord’s Bishop Brady and Nashua’s Bishop Guertin, regularly field strong teams in multiple sports. Public Dover and private neighbor St. Thomas Aquinas united in a co-op in 2009 that won the only NHIAA girls hockey crown by a squad not named Hanover. Manchester’s nondenominational Derryfield School has been a force in small-school athletics for years.

I could go on and on, so let’s cut to the chase: Private schools can play public schools — either head-to-head or as part of a united program — in the NHIAA fold.

Except if you’re a pint-sized newcomer from Sunapee, apparently.

I’m not surprised by the decision, given the NHIAA’s past record. It strong-armed Connecticut Valley League football out of existence in the early 1990s by denying Upper Valley schools access to state tournaments when they chose fuel-cost containment over Saturday afternoons in Somersworth. Bull-headed state leadership prevented girls hockey from gaining NHIAA sanction for three years in the oughts, leaving coaches to form their own state tournament as the bureaucracy dawdled.

The NHIAA’s rejection of MRA-Kearsarge baseball also fails the test of its own bylaws. The association claimed adding seven Mount Royal athletes to a roster of 18 at Kearsarge would displace host players. Yet the NHIAA handbook’s own classification section on co-op programs specifically states schools involved in a co-op “will acknowledge a NO CUT POLICY on the application form.”

(The all-caps comes courtesy of the NHIAA, not yours truly. Apparently someone in the NHIAA isn’t reading the rules closely enough.)

I will grant the association one point. Kearsarge athletic director Scott Fitzgerald said his baseball program is down 18 players this spring from its usual 25. That should be enough to field a varsity baseball team at a minimum, and it could be enough to add a junior varsity as well, although it wouldn’t be a picnic switching athletes between the two. I get the NHIAA’s thought process in this specific case.

But baseball also has rules on pitch counts and pitcher rest that other sports don’t, which Fitzgerald noted during the application process. That should have received more consideration from the NHIAA than it ultimately did.

Before the arrival of co-op teams in Vermont, the VPA first established the member-to-member program, permitting students at schools without a preferred sport to join the squad of a neighboring school, provided all parties involved can make it work. No cuts of host players to accommodate outside arrivals are permitted. Consequently, member-to-member has been a boon to Vermont’s tiny schools and shorthanded programs.

This spring, a Sharon Academy student is playing boys lacrosse at Montpelier High. Another suited up for Woodstock High boys hockey last winter. Hartford High’s hockey rosters have been dotted with help from TSA, Oxbow, Thetford and other Upper Valley schools. The Hurricanes had TA athletes on a football team that came within a point of a state championship last November; I didn’t hear anyone whining about Hartford trying to build a multi-school athletic juggernaut.

That’s the beauty of the VPA. It’s willing to help students find or create playing opportunities. The NHIAA picks and chooses to suit itself.

The NHIAA has now robbed four Mount Royal seniors of a chance to play baseball this spring. Three other undergraduates are presumably assessing options, which might include leaving the school altogether. Reducing a private school’s student population is no way to treat a dues-paying member, NHIAA.

Moynihan helped set the argument against the MRA-Kearsarge baseball co-op and ultimately voted against it. His actions contributed to a denial of athletic opportunity for seven students at a rival school in Sunapee. Considering Sunapee High and Mount Royal are theoretically competing for the same student in town, and even if an MRA-Kearsarge co-op would be in a different division from Sunapee, it’s still a conflict of interest. Moynihan should never have been involved.

But I will give him credit for this: He sees the need for the NHIAA to explore alternatives to current co-op policy: “You want to give as many kids an opportunity as possible with it being relatively fair opportunities and without unfair advantages.”

The NHIAA spends too much time worrying about imaginary unfair advantages that could be spent creating meaningful opportunities. Seven Mount Royal Academy boys are idle this spring because the NHIAA’s heavy-handedness.

That’s inexcusable.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.