- Chris Hansen, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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The greater Philadelphia area has three teams ranked nationally in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 this week -- No. 5 Cardinal O'Hara (Springfield), No. 17 Archbishop Carroll (Radnor), and No. 31 Germantown Academy (Fort Washington). Many have looked forward to the matchups between these three teams and other strong teams in the region such as Archbishop Wood (Warminster) or South Jersey's Peddie School.
However, Germantown Academy this year has played exactly one perennial powers -- the Peddie School, on Dec. 13 -- but none from its own state.
The reasons for what amounts to a shift from tradition depends on whom you ask. Those reasons include new-found scheduling limitations after several Catholic and City League schools gained membership in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletics Association (PIAA), as well as debate over whether Germantown Academy is carrying a fifth-year senior on its roster.
"We were under the impression Germantown Academy had a fifth year senior," said Jim Ricci, head coach at Archbishop Wood.
Jesse Carey, Germantown Academy's point guard and a Villanova signee, is in her fifth year of varsity competition. Germantown Academy is not a member of the PIAA, so its rules do not govern the program. But the five years Carey has played at Germantown do not disqualify it from playing PIAA teams anyway. In fact, Germantown Academy has played four PIAA teams this season; Chester (Dec. 7), Downingtown East (Jan. 3), Conwell Egan (Jan. 6) and Baldwin (Jan. 16).
A player is not considered a fifth-year senior unless the five seasons fall between the player's freshman and senior years, according to Melissa Mertz, PIAA assistant executive director. In that scenario, a player would have to repeat a year of high school while playing the sport to be in violation, and Carey's five years spanned her eighth grade through this year.
"There's a PIAA rule, a new rule, and I don't know exactly what the rule is, but one of their players played as an eighth grader and a seventh grader and there's about five or six different rules and unfortunately she falls under one of those rules," said Chuck Creighton, head coach at Archbishop Carroll. "We would love to play them and I know they would love to play us, we've played every year. And it's the same with the Peddie School, we can't play the Peddie School and we've traditionally played them. So next year we'll be able to play them."
Carey was not enrolled at Germantown Academy as a seventh grader.
Two years ago, a majority of the schools in the Catholic League, along with many from the City Public League joined the PIAA, allowing them to compete with a majority of the schools in the state in state-wide playoffs and championships.
"The PIAA has a rule and I know a lot of the teams here, the Catholic schools, went to the PIAA this year and cut back on their schedule of games," said Germantown Academy head coach Sherri Retif, whose team did not join the PIAA. "They were playing 30 games and now they can only play 22. So that was a part of the switch in schools playing us and not playing us."
The 2007-08 season was the first year of actual membership for Carroll, O'Hara, Wood and other teams making the switch, but this season is the first year those schools will compete fully in District XII and in the state playoffs. Mertz called last season a "transition year" as the association operates in two-year cycles for league alignment and last year marked the middle of its cycle.
"I tried to schedule out as tough a nonleague schedule as possible but we also lost two games from last year from 24 to 22," Creighton said.
O'Hara head coach Linus McGinty concurred with Creighton, saying his team lost five games from 27 or 28 regular season games each year to 22.
This year, as evidenced by the numerous national rankings and acclaim for the top players in the region, the Philly area teams are as strong as ever, but as opposed to previous years, they have not been able to settle differences on the court, instead of media rankings. For example, Carroll defeated Wood early in the season, but after winning the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions in December, O'Hara beat Carroll, then suffered its only loss to date, to Wood.
This first year of PIAA membership has changed more than just the total game count. Catholic League teams previously faced off twice each year within their division. Now those are once-a-year affairs.
"You know you just don't get to play O'Hara twice," Creighton said. "I mean that's disappointing but there's nothing you can do about it so you just deal with it."
Former Germantown Academy star and currently a freshman on the top ranked Connecticut Huskies, Caroline Doty, agreed on the importance of the games between her alma mater and the top catholic school rivals.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Doty said of looking forward to the matchups with Carroll and O'Hara each year she was at Germantown. "They're the top three teams in our area and those games decided who was at the top in the state."
Doty also remembered playing those teams every year, even rattling off former players she enjoyed facing, such as Amy Gillespie and Kim Benton, who led O'Hara to two Catholic League championships and are currently in their junior seasons at St. Johns and UMass respectively.
"You know what's been funny about this, this year - we have played Carroll, O'Hara, Wood, every year, and this is the first year we haven't played each other and it's kind of fun because we usually beat each other up and one team gets any kind of national recognition," Retif said. "And this year we're not beating each other up. We're going out of the state to be successful and we're (all) getting recognition ...I kind of like that fact.
"And no one knows what next year brings and I'm sure we'll be scheduling these teams in the future," Retif added, "I'm pretty confident of that."
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Chris Hansen covers girls' high-school basketball and women's college-basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a Communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high-school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
The move of several Catholic League powerhouses to the PIAA has cost this season its usual matchups with Germantown Academy.