The Public High League once dominated the local gridiron scene, and suburban districts were perennial doormats. Now it's the other way around. Ever wonder why?

While the city schools were dominating the gridiron in the '60s, '70s and '80s, county high schools slumbered, rarely contending for state titles. The exceptions, all in Class 4: McCluer won back-to-back championships in 1968 and '69, Hazelwood -- a single high school at the time -- won in 1972 and Webster Groves won in 1979. Additionally, Hazelwood Central lost in the Class 4 championship game four times during the period 1977-81.

But since 1982, teams from county schools have won seven state titles and finished runner-up another thirteen times. Last year Webster Groves won the Class 5 title, and Lindbergh lost in the championship game of the newly created Class 6. Mehlville made it to the Class 6 semifinals before losing. In Class 4, Eureka finished second.

The turning point was in fact 1982, when a long-standing lawsuit to desegregate area schools was settled. Beginning that year, African-American students in the city were allowed to transfer to predominantly white schools in the county, while white students from the county could transfer into the city's magnet schools. Almost from the start, county schools' rosters began loading up with black players from the city.

Roosevelt's Freddy Ball is one of the few college prospects in the PHL this year
Mark Gilliland
Roosevelt's Freddy Ball is one of the few college prospects in the PHL this year
Head football coach Sorrell Harvey runs drills with his struggling Roosevelt Rough Riders
Mark Gilliland
Head football coach Sorrell Harvey runs drills with his struggling Roosevelt Rough Riders

"The Public High League was one of the strongest athletic conferences around Missouri," sums up Sorrell Harvey, now in his third year as head coach at Roosevelt High School on St. Louis' near south side. "When desegregation happened, a number of good athletes, a number of good students, got involved. Not having the number of students, the competitiveness in the league went down."

On his roster this year, Harvey has 42 players. Sumner has 22. Beaumont has 28. That's all players -- freshmen through seniors. The Webster Groves varsity squad alone numbers 45 (including a handful of sophomores). Mehlville's varsity has 53, all juniors and seniors. Pattonville has 59. Parkway Central has 47 varsity players.

All those county teams have significant numbers of transfer students on their rosters: Mehlville has 36 transfer students in its 90-player program, or 40 percent; Parkway Central has 23 transfers on its varsity (nearly 50 percent). Seven of Pattonville's 35 junior and senior players -- 20 percent -- are transfers; the numbers are similar at Webster Groves, where 7 of the 34 juniors and seniors are transfers, including Darrell Jackson, the area's top player. One rival coach says the Mehlville football team could be called "the St. Louis All-Stars."

The numbers are disproportionate to the total percentages of transfers at those schools. Mehlville has 288 transfer students in its student population of 1,976, or just under 15 percent. Parkway Central has 171 transfers in a student body of 1,403 (12 percent). Webster Groves has 133 out of 1,342 (10 percent).

"There's no question it's hurt them," says Les Buehler, the freshman football coach at Lindbergh High School, who also teaches at Blewett Middle School in the city. "There's no question it's hurt them number-wise. We played Vashon in some non-league games a few years ago, and they had as good of athletes as we had. They played well. What hurt them was numbers. We had 50 and they had 20. We'd just wear 'em out."

There's plenty of speculation about illegal recruiting, and most coaches and administrators in the city and at county schools say it goes on -- at other schools. Mostly, however, it seems that success begets success. Players want to go where the best facilities are, to play under coaches who can take them deep into the playoffs and help them rack up the big numbers that will catch the eyes of college scouts. Parents who believe their son's best chance to go to college is on an athletic scholarship want him to play where he's liable to attract the most attention. If recruiting did go on during the early days of the transfer program -- and it's a safe bet that it did -- today the best programs have established well-worn paths between city neighborhoods and their football fields that city students follow on their own. After twenty years, those pathways seem as much a part of the high school football business as the district boundaries themselves.

"It's almost a quasi-neighborhood thing," says Mehlville principal Vince Viviano. "I have kids who tell me, 'My brother went here to school,' 'My cousin went here to school.'" But Viviano says the phenomenon isn't limited to football players. "Are they athletes? Some of them. Are they here because they're athletes? If their brothers and sisters were athletes, maybe. But I talk to parents in the county whose parents and grandparents went to Mehlville. It's a combination of things that brings kids here, and it has been for a number of years."

Whether students are lured to county schools by their friends or sent by their parents, rather than handpicked by coaches or boosters, they violate the rules set down by the Missouri State High School Activities Association if sports is part of their purpose for transferring.

As the governing body for all high school sports in the state, the MSHSAA does not allow students to transfer -- from city to county, county to city, or from public to private schools -- for athletic reasons. If MSHSAA investigators determine that a transfer was indeed for athletic reasons, the student loses all remaining eligibility.

Trouble is, there's virtually no way to pinpoint the motivation behind a transfer, concedes MSHSAA executive director Becky Oakes. "There are so many ways in which people can try to influence kids to change schools," Oakes says. Boosters, little league coaches, the parents of other students -- any of these people can exert influence. And when people outside the school are involved, there's not much the MSHSAA can do. "In some cases it may be intentional," says Oakes. "In a metropolitan area like St. Louis or Kansas City, it's easy to take place. There are so many schools, and you also have the voluntary transfer program and the whole choice issue. That sets up a scenario where it's easier for kids to pick or have something suggested to them.

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