By Matt Popchock
Before you watch KDKA-TV investigative reporter Andy Sheehan further scrutinize the dominance of the basketball program at Lincoln Park more closely, there are a few things you need to know.
You need to know that the Leopards are coming off a WPIAL championship and PIAA Class A Final berth, and they've been one of the most consistent programs in western Pennsylvania thanks to some key players who have transferred, such as Temple recruit and outgoing senior Devontae Watson.
You need to know that some other athletic directors speculate Lincoln Park has pirated top basketball players from their school districts, and that transferring for athletic intent normally flies in the face of WPIAL and PIAA by-laws.
You need to know that more athletes plan to transfer to Lincoln Park in the foreseeable future even as some non-athletes have unsuccessfully tried to gain acceptance to the performing arts charter school.
But there's something else you need to know:
There's no proof Lincoln Park has done anything wrong.
Here is the initial report filed by Sheehan during Monday evening's newscast:
"Well you can only conjecture that some of them aren't down there just to dance. That's for sure," Cornell head basketball coach and athletic director Bill Sacco said.
On the other hand, some of them are, among other things.
To underscore one of the points Sheehan made, the school offers courses of study in theatre, medicine, music, liberal arts, and more. It offers pre-K, special ed, and many of the things your own school district might offer. These kids put on elaborate plays, and some of them have even gone of to perform elsewhere in Pittsburgh. They win scholarships to prestigious schools like the Berklee College of Music. They sent a girl to try out for "American Idol." It's not as though the school was created purely for athletic intent.
It's not as though the school is hoarding college basketball prospects, either. That is not to say that some of Lincoln Park's recent players, including the transfer students, couldn't play ball at the next level, but Watson was the first Division I scholarship awardee in school history.
The Lipke case is unique. Yes, it's been a sensitive issue among players for Cornell and Lincoln Park, and yes, he was a factor in helping the Leopards defeat the Raiders twice in the regular season to help Lincoln Park win the A-Sec. 1 title. However, in the WPIAL Class A Final rematch, he played sparingly off the bench and scored two points, so to imply he was integral to that victory is to simply ignore the facts.
Lipke, another outgoing senior, lives in the Cornell School District and was permitted to play for its now-defunct football program because Lincoln Park does not have one. His decision to shoot hoops for the Leopards instead took advantage of the WPIAL's admittedly loose rules governing charter schools. Still, his decision was within those rules.
Quoting Monday's story, it's one of eight transfer cases that has been challenged by rival districts in the past five years. Sacco, a great basketball coach who's been around long enough to have mentored future NCAA champion John Callipari, should know by now there are reasons for that.
Number one, the WPIAL and PIAA are rarely on the same page when it comes to these cases.
Number two...everybody say it with me...
There's no proof.
Why would there be? Again, Lipke didn't break any rules.
Ron Sofo of Freedom, as you know, unsuccessfully challenged the case of Lipke's teammate, freshman guard Antonio Kellem, who became an impact player for Lincoln Park after transferring from Sofo's district. Sofo, in his own defense, probably knows a great deal about how charter schools operate, since he's leaving Freedom to join the board of directors for one next month.
Anyway, as a coach, why would you want to hang onto a player who openly expresses a desire to play somewhere else? Commitment and chemistry are necessary ingredients for championships, just as necessary as raw skill. Give me a two- or three-star recruit who wants to play for me over a four- or five-star recruit who doesn't any day of the week.
Freedom hasn't found much recent success in the gym, but it's not like Cornell's varsity squad has been gloriously absent of skill without Lipke. The Raiders did reach the Palumbo Center, after all, which entered them into the PIAA tournament regardless of their loss to Lincoln Park, and they made the playoffs the previous season, losing their opener to Clairton.
In addition, the Leopards don't go 30-0 every year. Rochester won their section in 2010-11, and in 2011-12 the highest-scoring team in WPIAL Class A during the regular season was Vincentian Academy--a team that, like Sewickley Academy, previously beat Lincoln Park for WPIAL gold, despite facing some of the same matchup problems Cornell faced this past season. Lincoln Park's championship this year was its first.
I don't deny that a number of high schools surreptitiously cheat on some level. But these transfer cases are not open to the media, and the WPIAL tends to remain mum on the facts of each one. We don't know every single piece of evidence presented.
Besides, in these parts, Lincoln Park, a tuition-free charter school that has excelled in basketball, is the exception, not the norm. The suspicion harbored by some of these athletic directors should perhaps be redirected east.
I don't know everything there is to know about the vast difference in population density and how it affects where certain kids play, but I do know the charter school system has expanded at a rapid rate in the greater Philadelphia area, and I know those schools have dominated WPIAL participants in the state basketball championships the past few years.
In the meantime, do the right thing, WPIAL basketball program officials. Promote the existing skills of existing players. Point your finger at them, not at everyone else. Make the best of your own gifts as an educator, and coach them up until they get better.
It's an art, not a science.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
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