When the puck drops for the 2019-20 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League’s regular season, the member schools will have new opponents and rivalries.
A major question asked by fans and supporters during each of thee past few off-seasons has been “How did my favorite team get stuck in that classification?” The short answer is that the teams are currently promoted and relegated based off of a rolling four-year, performance and enrollment based ranking system the league refers to as their “Comparative Formula” introduced before the 2014 season. The formula and it’s ways created balance amongst the three ‘pure’ classifications and a class-B (former Division-2) that allows for associations to mature at their own pace before moving to pure status.
Unlike other sports playing under the PIAA umbrella that benefit from member school funding, high school hockey is mostly club-based. While a number of teams are directly sponsored by a district, the associations are merely affiliated with the schools they represent. Each team has their own board of directors, schedules their ice time, purchases their own equipment and is permitted to play out-of-league games, tournaments and scrimmages. Players are also permitted to play for developmental associations and travel teams throughout the season.
The restrictions created by the club status of the sport are predominantly monetary. Tryout fees and association commitment dues can be as low as $800 and upwards of $2,000, and do not include travel expenses and equipment costs. Ice time is extremely limited in the area, so scheduling practices at rinks like Baierl (who now plays host to seven varsity squads) becomes taxing- and pricy.
Associations also face a compete level issue- areas where higher-level training and a larger enrollment “talent pool” tend to have an edge on lower income areas and smaller school districts. That’s not to say that high-caliber players only come from these areas, as Tyler Stewart recently tendered with the NAHL’s Johnstown Tomahawks after playing for Burrell in the open division and the Esmark Stars at the midget-major level.
The PIHL’s “Comparative Formula” attempts to take the human error out of the system, and in the past five years created an even playing field for a majority of the associations via a competitive atmosphere. The system closely resembles European football leagues that reward teams who are competing at the top of their levels with better competition, and the teams that are struggling a chance to compete in a lower division. The major difference in the PIHL’s format is that it accounts for four years of play instead of one, and a team may not be penalized for a phenomenal season due to a high-end number of graduating seniors without prior successful seasons.
The league uses the formula, ranking each association based off of their two-year PIAA enrollment plus a weighted sum of their last four varsity seasons- based off the win percentages each year of a four-year class. A team in triple-A has their win percentage multiplied by 1000 for that season, a team in double-A is 600, single-A is 360, and in the case of teams moving in-and-out of the open division, D2/class-B has a 216 multiplier. A 130 multiplier exists through next season for a number of open-division teams that played in class-C.
The rankings only take regular season success into consideration for win percentage with a formula of (wins/games played). Postseason success does not tie into the formula in its current format.
The system is simple. Associations start with their weighted win percentages from each of the previous four seasons and then add the host school’s two-year PIAA enrollment to create a “score”. All of the pure teams are then ranked from highest-to-lowest by that score, and the open teams are placed in another list.
The pure associations are split into the three classes with the highest point values ending up in AAA, the next set of teams placed in AA, and the remainder set in A. The formula is updated each season to reflect each teams progress, elevating stronger teams in their classification and relegating less successful teams to a lower class they can compete in.
Only varsity teams and the past four school years are considered in this formula – if a team takes a season off, they take a zero for that year and it counts against their rank overall.
CLASSIFICATIONS EXPLANATION AND EXAMPLES
In triple-A, the member schools earn a multiplier of 1000 in each season they compete.
As the team that was scheduled to move to AAA after the rankings were released, Pine-Richland finished with two years of success in AA after two years of less-than-average numbers in the top class. The weighted average for 2015-16 and 2016-17 allowed the Rams to jump ahead of Greater Latrobe who had continued success in four seasons of next-tier hockey. Pine-Richland also sees a boost from their enrollment, giving them the edge on the AAA’s 10th spot.
Upper St. Clair voluntarily opting-up a class allowed the class to have a balanced schedule that gave each squad a home-and-home with each other this upcoming season.
Double-A associations earn a 600 multiplier for each season in the class.
While the Panthers moved up, the Wildcats stood pat. Greater Latrobe is the most successful regular-season teams in AA over the past four seasons, one of two teams to finish at .500 or better over that span in the class (Hampton). They could have- and maybe should have- been the eleventh team in AAA this season had Upper St. Clair not jumped on the opportunity to elevate.
The promotion of the four single-A squads included another voluntary promotion by Meadville. The Bulldogs are a smaller school, but are tough and consistently in the running for the postseason title regardless of their two-year status as an “open division” school, are looking to compete in the middle-tier.
South Fayette shares the same (if not more successful) pedigree in single-A as Greater Latrobe in AA- the consistency that four consecutive winning seasons bring in the same classification.
West Allegheny’s two years of success in single-A led to an unsuccessful promotion to double-A in 2016-17, but the Indians are looking to right the ship after a solid year last year.
Montour’s promotion mirrors that of their rival at West Allegheny as the current single-A champions are excited to try and be the first team to win back-to-back Penguins Cup titles in two different classes since Cathedral Prep won the 2015 double-A and 2016 triple-A titles.
Single-A teams use 360 as their multiplier.
The elephant in the room is the exclusion of Thomas-Jefferson in the four-team exodus to a higher classification. One of the more competitive teams over the past three years, the Jaguars were kept in single-A on the virtue of Meadville’s volunteering.
A two-point swing (1361-1359) saw the Spartans stay in the double-A spot, and that can be attributed to the 9 additional students Montour has over TJ – the enrollment factor.
Class-B squads use 216 as their multiplier, 130 if they were a former Class-C team (on or before 2016-17) and do not add enrollment as there are multiple schools involved in the association.
Note: Kennedy Catholic re-organized as an association under the Neshannock name instead of creating a new association, so the point values accrued for the Lancers include the two years of class-C and Division-2 play under the Golden Eagles moniker.
In the 2019-20 season, two teams took advantage of an “opt-up” clause for teams who feel they can compete at a higher level than the formula suggests.
Upper St. Clair used this exception to return to triple-A, a level they were relegated from after subpar 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. A big reason for the Panthers rise was the emergence of a young core of players led by rising senior Devin Rohrich and rising sophomore Anthony Carone – two scorers that led double-A in points in 2018-19.
Meadville took advantage of the exception, deciding that the association is equipped to compete in the reclassified double-A despite the graduation of a trio of All-Stars in Nick Frantz, Brendan Leech and goaltender Eddie Kaufman. The re-tooled Bulldogs are led by rising senior Cohl Weber. Rising junior Jordan McCurdy looks to take the reins full-time after amassing a stellar 8-0, .905sv% stat line while splitting time with Kaufman in the regular season.
The two associations charity created a dream scenario where triple-A has a balanced schedule with 11 teams, double-A and single-A have four divisions of four teams each that allow for a balanced schedule where each team plays the same number of games against each other.
Single-A adds the two teams from Wheeling in their own ‘division’ where the Patriots and Maroon Knights play each other four times in PIHL play, and each other class school once. They are ineligible for the Penguins Cup and Pennsylvania State Championships, but do compete for West Virginia/Ohio Valley titles.
While there isn’t a case for relegation in the upcoming season, there was a unique situation presented by Moon in 2017-18. The Tigers were placed in AAA in the early classification release with defending AA champion Plum, only to ultimately co-op with Our Lady of Sacred Heart, Seton LaSalle and Keystone Oaks. The Tigers went on to win the Division-2 crown, then move back to AA in 2018-19.
When Plum won the Penguins Cup in 2017, they did so after seeing a major hit from their core, which led to an 8th place finish and a demotion to the ‘AA’ bracket. Mustangs had a small bit of success in the top class, and after two inspired efforts against eventual runner-up Peters Township, moved back to the second level in 2018-19.
The same year saw West Allegheny and Montour head to double-A from single-A, only to end up in their previous class the following year.
We at Pittsburgh Hockey Digest thank PIHL representative and formula author David Fryer for reaching out and making himself available during this process.