Reclassifying in 8th Grade is Against PIAA Rules: The Case of Puff Johnson

I watched Puff Johnson play in the National Championship game Monday night and recognized him from a state championship game in 2019. Puff led Moon Twp HS to victory over a tough Archbishop Wood squad in the 2019 PIAA 5A State Championship. Puff was a bad boy… Puff averaged 22.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in the 2018-2019 season as Moon went 28-2 and won the PIAA Class 5A title. Puff had high major offers including North Carolina, Pitt, Arizona, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt among others. He was the state’s Class 5A player of the year in all-state voting.

Puff Johnson, Moon Twp HS

Unfortunately, Puff never got a chance to defend his state championship. In June 2019, the WPIAL and PIAA ruled Puff ineligible for his senior season because he reclassified in the 8th grade.

The case of Puff Johnson is a cautionary tale. Pennsylvania parents must learn from his experience.

PIAA eligibility rules limit students to six seasons of a sport after sixth grade.

Let me repeat… Because this is some important stuff…

PIAA eligibility rules limit students to six seasons of a sport after sixth grade.

The WPIAL decided that Johnson reached that limit in the 11th grade because he repeated the eighth grade and played basketball both years, one at Rhema Christian School and one at Moon.

Now… Follow closely… Puff reclassified in 8th grade. Puff played middle school basketball while he reclassified. Those decisions rendered Puff ineligible to compete in the PIAA during his senior season.

Most parents, youth coaches and AAU coaches assume that reclassifying prior to 9th grade does not impact HS eligibility. This is definitively not the case, Puff Johnson reclassified in the 8th grade and lost his 12th grade PIAA eligibility. As a result, Puff had to leave his hometown HS in Moon Township. Basketball wise, Puff was fine. He graduated in 2020 from Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, where he was coached by former NBA guard Mike Bibby. What he missed were things like homecoming, prom and graduation with his childhood friends and longtime schoolmates.

Parents must understand this rule.

In the Greater Philadelphia region, for the most part, it has not been rigidly enforced. But increasingly coaches and athletic directors exhibit a willingness to call foul and report perceived eligibility violations. It’s happening far more frequently. Parents of reclassifying students should understand that If their child’s eligibility is challenged, the student-athlete will be deemed ineligible in the 12th grade. Ineligible seniors can seek a waiver. Puff tried that route… His waiver application was denied.

Again… Because he played 8th grade basketball while reclassifying, Puff Johnson was PIAA ineligible.

This particular case ends well… It’s April 2022 and I watched Puff, a sophomore, play for Hubert Davis and North Carolina in the National Championship. The Tar Heels came up short, but Puff acquitted himself well.

Puff Johnson, North Carolina

The case of Puff Johnson provides a clear example for parents. They take heed and learn from what the PIAA did to Puff…

Someone wanted Puff gone for his senior year… Mission accomplished… Couldn’t beat Puff on the court, knocked him off with memos and emails.

The applicable rule for granting an extra year is Article VIII of the PIAA bylaws. Under these bylaws, a student can be granted a waiver for “illness or injury” or “severe and unusual personal hardship.”

The rule says that a waiver can be granted if “a student demonstrates that the student repeated a school year or semester for a reason beyond the student’s control, which produced severe and unusual environmental, social, and/or emotional conditions which, in turn, created a debilitating personal non-athletic hardship which would have prevented a reasonable student under similar circumstances from satisfactorily completing a school year or semester.”

The PIAA rule also says the waiver “may be granted if the student participated in no more than 25 percent” of the team’s regular-season games in the school year that was later repeated.

So… what’s the takeaway? What’s the lesson? If you want to reclassify in Pennsylvania and not worry about any potential PIAA eligibility issues, do so before the completion of 6th grade.


2 responses

  1. This is very interesting. I dug up a little something from the PIAA, and the way it is worded says different
    PIAA reclassification rules:
    Your athletic eligibility extends only until you have reached the end of your fourth consecutive year (8th consecutive semester or the equivalent) beyond the eighth grade. Therefore, if you repeat a grade after eighth, you will be ineligible as a senior.

    It has always been my understanding that once you start 9th grade the clock is ticking…you have 4 years. But before that you are ok.

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