In Play with Tom Markowski


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Catholic League withstands many changes, more could be on the horizon

By: Tom Markowski, January 17, 2016, 4:19 pm



It was quite a week in the Detroit Catholic League. Pontiac Notre Dame Prep was given a ticket out, Scott Merchant found his way back in.

No league, except perhaps the Detroit Public School League, has gone through as many changes as the Catholic League has in the past 25 years. Like the PSL, the Catholic League, not by choice, has downsized over the years. But over the past 10 years or so there has been some semblance of stability. School closings have stopped, for the most part. Enrollment continues to be a concern but that’s not unlike most school districts in the state.

If one looks a bit closer there have been some significant changes within the league. First let’s look at the coaching changes.

Following the 2013 football season Al Fracassa retired as coach at Birmingham Brother Rice. The legendary coach meant so much to the school and to high school football overall.

Pat Fox also replaced Kyle Zimmerman (now at Davison) as head football coach at Notre Dame Prep following that season and John Filiatraut returned to his alma mater replacing Steve Robb at Dearborn Divine Child. There have been others on the coaching carousel.

George Porritt stepped down as basketball coach Orchard Lake St. Mary’s before this season and although Porritt remains as football coach and athletic director not having him on the court is another sign of the changing of the guard.

And most recently Paul Verska retired as football coach at Warren De La Salle after last season opening the door for Merchant to move over from Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.

Back to Notre Dame Prep. The decision by league officials to ban Notre Dame Prep for one school year beginning this fall is the most shocking news since Detroit De Porres closed its doors following the 2004-05 school year. Notre Dame Prep administrators’ refusal to play Birmingham Brother Rice in a football game, the only reason the school was banned, is baffling and sad.

It’s baffling because schools in many leagues and conferences are asked to play crossover games against teams with a larger enrollment. Take Marine City from the Macomb Area Conference as just one example. Marine City has an enrollment of approximately 540 students and is a member of the Gold Division for football. This past season it played Warren Cousino, which an enrollment of slightly over 1,500 students and competes in a higher division, the Blue. Marine City won 42-27. That’s not to infer that Marine City coach Ron Glodich enjoys playing a team with nearly three times as many students but rules are rules and he followed them.

It’s sad because the athletes in the other sports like baseball, basketball, volleyball and the rest are being cheated out of competing against other Catholic League teams and athletes because someone or a group of people decided the football team won’t play Brother Rice. For what it’s worth, Brother Rice’s program isn’t at the competitive level it was from 2011-13 when it won three consecutive Division 2 titles. The Warriors were 2-7 last season and it is possible they’ll struggle to break the .500 mark this season when one considers the schedule they face.

The league also granted a reprieve of sorts for the football program at U-D Jesuit. The Cubs, a member of the Central Division, won’t play two division foes this season, Brother Rice and Detroit Catholic Central. The reason league director Vic Michaels gave was that U-D was unable to field a junior varsity team the past two seasons and that by cutting its division schedule in half it would help stabilize the program.

U-D defeated Brother Rice, 34-0, last season marking the program’s first Central Division victory since 2006.

Here’s a better solution. Move U-D to the AA Division replacing Notre Dame Prep. Other leagues and conferences shuffle teams from one division to another. Why not the Catholic League? U-D would then compete with Detroit Loyola, Divine Child and Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard. It would be a competitive four-team division. Also have U-D play the two games against the Central Division teams but they would now be crossover games.

A move the league made that State Champs is in agreement with is the opportunity for non-Catholic member schools, like Macomb Lutheran North and Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, to play for a league championship. These schools have previously been allowed to only participate in a league schedule and compete for a division title, but not a league title.

What this means is that Lutheran North’s football team can play at Ford Field and play for a league title. Cranbrook Kingswood’s hockey team can play at Joe Louis Arena and compete for a league title. Don’t underestimate this ruling. This change could entice other schools like Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, for example, to join. University Liggett’s hockey program and baseball program, to name just two, compete well at the state level. It would be easy to imagine University Liggett competing in the Catholic League Intersectional against school like Madison Heights Bishop Foley and others.

How about Detroit Country Day? Long an independent, Country Day’s athletic programs like hockey, football, tennis, and so on compete well at the state level. Should school administrators choose to apply, and are accepted, Country Day could join Cranbrook Kingswood, its biggest rival.