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Changes to playoffs and other tidbits from section’s Media Day

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POSTED September 2, 2010 2:36 a.m.
STOCKTON — The Sac-Joaquin Section overhauled its postseason format for football last season and has made a few minor tweaks for 2010.

There are also changes to the playoff format for baseball, softball, soccer, water polo and team tennis.

But one of the hot topics centered on a potential change in the state’s current playoff system for boys and girls basketball.

Section Commissioner Pete Saco revealed a planned proposal that would expand the California Interscholastic Federation’s state basketball tournament by adding an Open Division that would include “up to eight” of the best — regardless of division — in Northern California.

“This is to determine THE state champion,” Saco said during the section’s annual Media Day conference at Elkhorn Country Club.

Starting last season, the SJS awards berths to the CIF Northern California Regional Championships to the four semifinalists in each of the five divisions. Previously, only two qualified — section champs and runner-ups.

In the 2008-09 season, East Union High enjoyed one of the school’s finest seasons in girls basketball, going 27-3. A 90-35 loss in the SJS Division III playoff semifinals to Stockton’s parochial powerhouse, St. Mary’s, widely regarded as one of the nation’s best teams in recent years, made for a sour end to what was otherwise a fantastic season for the Lancers.

It is instances such as that that have inspired Saco to come up with the proposed Open Division tournament.

The Open Division would feature the state’s powerhouse programs, be they private schools or public schools, large schools or small.

Saco shared some of the proposed criteria for qualifying teams, such as consecutive section championships and NorCal playoff berths. If a team won its first-ever section title one year, it would not be considered for the Open Division the next.

That would surely draw plenty of interesting contests that would otherwise not be established in the current format.

Last year, St. Mary’s and Mater Dei of Santa Ana were considered to be the state’s two best girls basketball teams. Some ranked them the top two nationally.

Even though Mater Dei edged St. Mary’s in a prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona, both teams finished the season with one loss and many still believed the latter to be  the country’s No. 1 team.

Come playoff time, there was no way of settling the argument. Mater Dei was pitted against other Division II schools on its way to winning a state title, while St. Mary’s did the same in Division III.

Saco admitted that the addition of an Open Division would dilute the rest of the playoffs. Some of the best small schools, some would argue, would not be showcased in the Division IV and V tournaments, and the state champions there wouldn’t truly be considered the best in that particular division.

Then again, other schools not named St. Mary’s and Mater Dei would at least have a shot at earning a championship instead of suffering embarrassing 50-point losses to them.

“It isn’t right,” Saco said. “We keep getting complaints that it’s not fun anymore.”

The section’s football playoffs have already undergone some major changes, but some minor ones will be implemented.

Predetermined brackets are a thing of the past, and with it the controversial parings and postseason snubs. In 2008, Manteca High went 8-2 but missed the Division IV playoffs because the Valley Oak League was slotted for only two qualifiers. The Capital Valley Conference, meanwhile, had three advance with third-place Foothill, at 2-8 overall, getting in.

“We think this system solves that,” Assistant Commissioner John Williams said.

The new format was unveiled last fall with only few hiccups. Divisions formerly with eight-team brackets were expanded to 16 and were broken up by enrollment figures, leading to some interesting matchups.

In 2009, 32 schools in a pool of Division-I and –II schools qualified, with the largest 16 making up the D-I bracket and the rest going into II. The same was done for III and IV, though Division IV was split up into separate “A” and “B” enrollment-based brackets with the winners of each squaring off the championship.

This year the boundary between Division II and III schools has been eliminated, so a few from either side could be moving up or down from year to year with few exceptions. St. Mary’s of Stockton, for example, has an enrollment close to that of a Division IV school but plays in a D-I league, so the Rams are not allowed to drop any further than II.

Essentially, 64 teams (40 conference champs and runner-ups, and 24 at-large berths) will still qualify for the postseason from Divisions I-IV, with the 16 largest schools in Division I, the next 16 in Division II and so on.

Another change involves outright league champions and co-champions, which will be seeded higher than non-titlists regardless of records.

The predetermined brackets will no longer be used for the other major team sports, as well. Leagues with six teams or more will have three qualifiers apiece for baseball, softball, soccer, water polo and tennis, while ones with less than six advance just two.

The Division IV Valley Oak League, which includes five Manteca Unified schools, and Division-V Trans Valley League (Ripon High) will now be apart of nine-team playoff brackets. The top teams will be seeded to avoid early contests between favorites, and the eighth- and ninth-ranked teams will play an out-bracket game with the winner squaring off against the No. 1.

Other items discussed Wednesday were:

• The section is adding a Division VI bracket for schools with 150 and less students in girls volleyball, which affects only powerhouse Ripon Christian in the area.

The Knights have won three straight Division V championships and will remain there, but the playoff field will likely be shrunk down to eight from 16.

• A new rule regarding concussions will be enforced for all sports. If an official suspects that a player may have a concussion, he or she will be removed from the contest and may not return to that match or any other until cleared by a doctor.

While the official has final say, he may take advice from a paramedic or another medical professional if one is present.

• The CIF would like to follow through quickly on the intentions of the now-withdrawn Assembly Bill 7, also called the “bat bill,” but supply may not meet demand.

Both state legislators and CIF officials agreed earlier this month that metal alloy and aluminum bats put high school players at serious risk after Marin Catholic High pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was critically injured by a line drive in March.

Approved composite bats, which react similarly to wooden bats, will likely not be available statewide by January. If that is the case, the metal bats of old will be used for at least one more season.

• With safety also a concern in softball, the CIF has voted to move the pitcher’s circle back 3 feet, increasing the distance from plate to rubber to 43 feet. Some states applied the National Federation of State High School Associations rule last year.

• The SJS will host its inaugural Hall of Fame induction banquet at Arco Arena on Oct. 24. The inaugural class includes 25 athletes, 13 coaches and a handful of administrators, officials and media. Section Director of Communications Will DeBoard said with over 60 years worth of history to catch up on, the first few class sizes will tend to be large.

It’s a star-studded cast of some of the section’s greats, like Olympic gold medallists Evelyn Ashford and Summer Sanders, NFL champion Tedy Bruschi and NBA champion Bill Cartwright.

Former East Union standout Scott Brooks, the NBA’s reigning Coach of the Year, stands a good chance of being inducted into the section’s next class of Hall of Famers in 2012.

• The section profited $29,527.09 last year, down from over $100,000 in 2008-09.

Why the sudden and drastic drop-off, you ask? Rain.

The SJS makes most of its money through gate sales at postseason events — especially football playoff games. Last year, rainstorms drove away fans so dramatically that the expansion of postseason qualifiers made little difference.

Rain also affected admission sales in baseball and softball in the spring.

“We’re not dependent on the government (for money),” Williams said. “We’re dependent on Mother Nature.”

The section still distributed money to its 28 leagues, which split $16,700. That’s down from $86,900 in 2008-09, however.
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