Pros and cons of playing up

Notre Dame Prep chooses to compete amongst the best


2015 NDP girl’s soccer state champions (Mike Harvey/Special to the Seraphim)

By Sarah Ziemann, Staff Writer

As Zidane Thomas of Centennial continually broke through the defensive line, the Saints’ front seven struggled, play after play, to bring down their stronger and faster opponent. Nerves, excitement, anger, thrill, and passion were all palpable on the sidelines. The Notre Dame Preparatory High School Saints faced the Centennial High School Coyotes for the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Football Conference 5A Championship at University of Arizona’s colossal stadium in Tucson on Saturday, December 7, 2017. Despite entering the game undefeated, NDP suffered a crushing loss, 42-21.

The AIA  football state championship ticket is a bittersweet memento, reminding Saints fans of a great season that ended in a crushing loss. (Sarah Ziemann/The Seraphim)

Based on enrollment, the lopsided loss was not a surprise. According to AIA’s Conference Placement, based on enrollment figures from October 1, 2015, NDP’s enrollment of 902 students is just 43 percent of the enrollment of Centennial’s 2,095 students. The lopsided championship game begs the question of the fairness and legitimacy of the AIA Division and Conference alignment, and specifically NDP’s placement within these classifications. Should NDP continue to compete against much larger schools or move down to a lower division?

History of the AIA and NDP Division Placements


The AIA, which has existed since 1913, recently implemented many changes in its placements of schools in differing divisions. Every two years, the AIA changes the school placements, and the schools in Arizona can petition to play up or down.

NDP’s first-year athletic director, Mark Cisterna, has been working in Arizona athletic programs for over 15 years, bearing witness to an overhaul in the way that schools are placed in certain classes.

“Ten years ago, schools were placed strictly by enrollment,” Cisterna said. “You couldn’t appeal; it was just where you were placed is where you played.”

However, the criterion for placing schools has also changed throughout the years. Prior to the 2013 school year, the AIA took into account socioeconomics, location, student enrollment, and the competitive nature of schools. Then, in 2015, they switched back to basing the athletic classes purely on student enrollment, but high schools can still petition to play up or down.

Cisterna explained, “We’ve gone a full circle.”

As of 2017, the AIA has created athletic conferences for team sports and divisions for individual sports. For example, NDP’s football team plays in Conference 5A, while their track program competes in Division II. These conferences and divisions were determined by student enrollment, and since its beginning, NDP has petitioned to play up against larger schools and better competition.

AIA Director of Business Development, Brian Bolitho, further explained the conferences in 2017: “Conferences are based specifically on enrollment. For this current two year block, if a school successfully appealed up or down in the last two year block, that is where they were initially placed when provided to the conferences.”

However, Notre Dame Prep has gone through many changes with the AIA. Their first ranking was in Division 4A-II.

Freshmen football coach, science teacher, and NDP alumni Nic Orlando recalled how division alignments worked when he played sports in 2012: “In the past, it was 5A, 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A, but then within those, there was two divisions.”

Orlando continued, “I remember some of the top dogs in 4A-II; there was Mingus, and [our rival] Cactus Shadows.”

In the past, the AIA has also allowed different sports to compete at different levels. NDP has participated in this; however, this inconsistency among sports can cause confusion and frustration.

Orlando said, “Back in the past, they had it to where one sport could be Division I, one sport could be Division II, so it allowed for the differences in sports […] But now, I like that all sports are put into one bracket, or one division, because that means you will see the same school in football, basketball, golf, or whatever it is.”

Shelley Dinges, the coach of NDP’s girl’s golf and girl’s tennis programs, supported Orlando’s viewpoint: “I personally think it’s better when we’re all at the same level […] because it gets very confusing,” she said.


2017 NDP girl’s state tennis runner-up (Dalita Zarasian/Special to The Seraphim)

However, some coaches and athletic administrators support playing each sport at different levels. Many believe that this is the best way to provide equal competition to teams in all sports.

Brian Mueller, lead assistant varsity basketball coach at Saguaro High School, a Conference 4A school, said, “The goal should be to create a competitive environment and opportunity.”

It may feel that all of this organization of schools may be too complicated. There are so many factors that can play into how competitive an athletic program is, and Notre Dame Prep has decided that it can compete with schools that are more than twice its size. However, is it fair for a school with a much smaller enrollment to compete against athletic powerhouses among the state?



Reasons for Competing at a Higher Level

Competing at a higher level opens the door for more opportunities for athletes as far as recruiting and improving in an individual sport. Colleges and universities generally look at athletes competing against the biggest and best schools in the state. They want to recruit players who can compete against other intimidating competitors.

Blake Storey, a senior at NDP, has competed in football, basketball, and lacrosse over his four years in high school, and he has noticed more scholarship and recruiting opportunities due to competing at a higher level.

“When you play bigger schools, that means that there is going to be colleges looking at those schools, and that gives us opportunities to show them that we can [compete] too,” Storey said.

NDP’s trophy case in the Dale M. Jensen Gymnasium (Sarah Ziemann/The Seraphim)


Playing at a higher level undoubtedly opens up more opportunities for an athlete to improve their skills. Young athletes generally have more fun and can improve their skills when they are playing against a team that is equal or even better than them in skill and competition level.

Dinges claimed, “I think the only way you get better is by competing against people that are better than you.”

Others realize that NDP certainly has advantages over some of its competitors and should petition to play up. Due to the location, socioeconomics, and religious affiliation of the school, NDP can attract more skilled students. Since the 2004 boy’s golf team captured the state championship, NDP has hauled in 46 state titles. The first title for girls, in tennis, followed three years later. Three girls programs starred as recently as 2016 as tennis, soccer and poms earned championships. The most recently crown was claimed in the spring 0f 2017 by boy’s lacrosse, while the 2017-18 school year is characterized by five runner-up finishes:including  football, girl’s soccer and tennis.

2013 NDP baseball state champions (Mike Harvey/Special to The Seraphim)

Currently an assistant football coach at Pinnacle High School, Mike Brown has experienced many changes in high school division placements in his 30 years of coaching in Arizona, and acknowledges NDP’s advantages. “Parochial schools can recruit and get kids from anywhere in Maricopa [County] …  anywhere in the state really.”

Mueller added, “Private schools draw from a larger geographic base, and are not limited to the students from ‘feeder’ middle schools.”

NDP’s first team AIA State Championship for 2007 boy’s basketball (Mike Harvey/Special to The Seraphim)

However, some middle school students will decide to attend huge high schools where they know that they can be successful in one sport. Recruiting may be a benefit for NDP, but other schools are also culpable in attracting athletic incoming freshman.

Mueller explained, “You can only coach the players who happen to enroll at your school.”

NDP also is known for drawing students from a wealthier socioeconomic background. Generally, private schools have few students with limited resources, while many public schools lose athletes who cannot compete for financial reasons.

“Individual finances are vastly different,” Mueller claimed. “At a private school, the issue of a player having adequate nutrition, or transportation to and from practice, or being able to play instead of work, or being able to pay the required participation fee is never an issue.”

Cisterna remembered students and families at Maricopa High School, where he served as athletic director prior to his arrival at Notre Dame: “Kids there, a lot of them had to work, and they couldn’t participate in sports,” he said. “But their numbers were counted in the school. So, the number of athletes that participated probably didn’t warrant the classification that they were placed in.”

Therefore, NDP may need to be placed in a higher division. However, student enrollment alone still has a major impact on the competitiveness of a high school team.

AIA 2017 state football championship at University of Arizona in Tucson (Sarah Ziemann/The Seraphim)

Reasons Against Competing at a Higher Level

Competing at a higher level may seem to be only beneficial, yet it can be frustrating for athletic programs that constantly struggle to compete with the best teams in the state.

The NDP girl’s softball program has struggled to compete against larger schools. They suffered a 10-0 loss to Chaparral High School (2,104 students) and a 9-1 loss to Mesquite High School (1,892 students) during the 2017 season.

NDP softball coach Caitlin Melnychenko said, “I think it’s definitely a positive thing to compete against the best, but I also think you have to be realistic, too.”

When schools have a higher student enrollment, they generally have more players on their team rosters. In some sports, numbers can mean everything.

Brown added, “There’s just a lot more depth for certain sports just because you have so many more numbers to choose from.”

In individual sports, where numbers can have a huge impact, the new division placements of 2018-2020 will also be determined by student enrollment. According to AIA’s Conference Timeline for the new two-year block, there can be a different number of individual divisions based on the sport.

Melnychenko said, “It’s much harder for the smaller teams, […] we’ve always had the issue of competing against the Chaparrals and the Hamiltons and the Desert Mountains, these schools that are three and four times our size.”

There is no doubt that NDP is much smaller than most of it competitors. According to AIA’s 2017-2018 Conference placements, only seven schools are less than twice the size of Notre Dame Prep. Also, according to AIA’s rulebook of August 2014, there is “a strong concern for fairness, a level playing field, and competitive balance.

NDP may be jeopardizing its opportunities for equal competition by petitioning to play up.

Perhaps NDP should compete against the biggest schools in the state in sports like golf, tennis, and soccer, where expensive private lessons and training with club teams produces such a tremendous impact, yet it is a hardship for other sports and athletes. NDP will likely never compete for a track and field state championship because it will struggle to find multiple competitors in the myriad of events necessary.


2013 NDP boy’s tennis state runner-up trophy (Mike Harvey/Special to The Seraphim)

Dinges acknowledged, “I think it’s harder [to win] with sports like track and swim, where numbers are so important, just to have more people in those events.”

Senior Meghan Pipitone, who competes in cross country, soccer, and track, explained, “We’re [running] against a lot more experienced runners. It’s frustrating because I work hard but I’m running against club runners that are very well trained and experienced.”

These track athletes generally can be more experienced because they have more team competition and more students within the school to run and challenge each other.

Most coaches and athletes feel some self-generated pressure to succeed or win in their sports. For some NDP athletic teams, this is possible and has been accomplished, as evidenced by the walls filled with state championship and runner-up banners in the gymnasium. For others, they will continue to struggle as long as they compete against schools with student body enrollments that are more than twice its size.

No matter the division or conference where NDP competes, the Saints are encouraged to strive to win with honor and dignity.

Cisterna summed up the attitude most NDP coaches embrace about competition: “I’d love to win state championships in every sport, [but] how you win is important to me.”

NDP state championship banners on display in the gym (Sarah Ziemann/The Seraphim)