To argue too loudly about Kolbe Cathedral petitioning a move down a division in the new CIAC basketball tournament format is to shout down the resolve of a group of young men in search of great renewal.
That would not be fair.
Yet to ignore the argument of how schools of choice fit into the landscape of boys’ state basketball is to ignore the greatest challenge of high school sports in Connecticut.
That would not be fair either.
I am new to Hearst Connecticut Media, but I am old to the argument over where Catholic, magnet and other schools of choice should be placed in divisions among public schools with borders. I have watched as a sports columnist. I have watched as a dad of a player twice knocked out of the state tournament by Notre Dame-Fairfield.
My criticism boiled over in my former position at The Hartford Courant when a super team from Sacred Heart, led by Mustapha Heron, was allowed to roll against all competitive logic to the 2016 Class M title. My roar quieted to a silent sick feeling when I read an email from a Westbrook resident on how that small shoreline town’s once in-a-generation team should never have had to play Trinity Catholic in the 2017 Class S championship.
A change was badly needed and the CIAC put together a one-year experiment, changing four alphabetical classes into five numerical divisions. No system is perfect, but the 2018 road to Mohegan Sun for the state championships has been a good one.
Division I produced a slew of unforgettable games. Division II afforded large enrollment schools without great basketball pedigree chances to shine. The smaller public schools have been given better chances.
And then, screech! Throw the brakes! There’s Kolbe Cathedral.
After the new divisions were set up, schools were allowed to appeal their placing to the CIAC. Nineteen schools did, according to Gregg Simon, CIAC associate executive director. Only Darien and Kolbe won their appeals. Kolbe dropped from Division III to IV. Granted, the optics were not great. A school of choice, one with a storied basketball history, dropping to the second lowest division? And now advancing to its 10th state championship game against Rocky Hill on Sunday afternoon?
“Realistically, we’re a petition away from being state champion,” Valley Regional coach Kevin Woods said after falling to Kolbe in the Division IV quarterfinals. “They were supposed to be Division II. They petitioned, a Catholic school, down to D-IV. What are you going to do?”
Me? I was going to make a beeline to Kolbe’s John Pfohl during the CIAC luncheon Thursday. Pfohl, who won 315 games and two state championships at Kolbe from 1993-2008, returned to the school after last season. Pfohl is no ordinary high school basketball coach.
“You’re looking at a team that went 7-53 the last three years, 1-19 last year and graduated a bunch of seniors,” Pfohl said. “You’re looking at a long rebuild. We’ve got a lot to fix.”
Kolbe went 1-19 last season. Kolbe lost all its games in 2014-2015. Lot to fix? You think?
“What I found early on was their acceptance of me, my intensity and the way we were going to do things, which were different than the past,” Pfohl said. “My expectations were going to be a little higher They embraced it. They wanted to learn. They didn’t want to be 1-19.
“Did we envision what has happened? Probably not. But their willingness to do what it was going to take to turn it around was off the charts.”
A school of choice goes from 1-19 to 20-6 and I know what you’re thinking. Pfohl solved his problem by getting all new players. Wrong. He has used four seniors, led by Anthony Senior, in his starting lineup. Senior, Kyle Federici, Demetrius Gordon, Naz Vereen along with junior Quinton Sneed all played on that 1-19 team. So did sixth man Evan Coleman. Their one non-freshman transfer split his time between varsity and jayvee.
“No silver bullet,” Pfohl said. “And people keep saying we went from Division II, no, it was III to IV. To me that’s not the story. The story is they lost 19 games last year and just won 20. Let’s talk about the kids and what they’ve done. I understand that there are people out there with feelings about what’s gone on [with past tournament structure]. I get it. But some saying we brought in a whole different roster? OK, the truth is I do have different players. They were on the roster last year, but they are different players this year.”
Pfohl resigned from Kolbe in 2008 in order to watch his kids Victoria, Alexa, Amanda and John play basketball for Trumbull High. Each was a terrific player. When he walked back into Kolbe, which had been in Class S for a decade, he ran smack into a new format.
“I went to the principal [Henry Rondon] and went, ‘Help me out here,’ Pfohl said. “This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’re 7-53 and the basis of this thing is the last three years. We were in the lowest class and we were moved up into the middle. It doesn’t seem like we are setting ourselves up for any kind of success.
“We’re just trying to get in the state tournament. To get in and lose by 100 the first game doesn’t seem like a great deal. He said he agreed and he’d handle the situation.”
One of the things the athletic directors had insisted on, according to Simon, was an appeals process with the CIAC.
“Kolbe had really fallen on hard times,” Simon said. “The committee, which had people with basketball backgrounds, listened to the explanation given by Henry Rondon. You should consider that 17 of 19 appeals were not granted.”
There is a message in this. And, I think Pfohl hit on it when he said, “One size does not fit all.” The school of choice argument has grown so hot that the gray area burned up. Each argument should be weighed individually.
“You want to have a school of choice tournament vs. non-school of choice?” Pfohl said. “Great. Let’s do it. The problem with that is there are going to be a lot of public schools that will be in the school of choice. I live in Trumbull. Trumbull has a vo-ag program. School of choice.
“We have under 90 boys in our entire school. When I was Kolbe prior, we won Division II. We played in the Division I championship. If the program had been where it was, we wouldn’t be in Division IV.”
In other words, with success Kolbe will move up.
“You want all these high school kids to have a good experience and feel they at least have an opportunity to be successful,” Pfohl said. “I think the petition process is a good one. And I’m not upset about the comments. Everybody has their opinions. Our No. 1 goal is to make our kids better on and off the court.”