“That would be the word that best describes it,” Joe Pirillo said.
That was the Lathrop High head football coach’s reaction to his team’s unexpected No. 1 seed for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Brackets came out Saturday afternoon and were first unveiled during an online broadcast by NFHS Network.
Led by a first-year coach, the Spartans (6-4) are first-time postseason qualifiers and are serious contenders in the eight-team Division IV bracket. It’s a wide-open tournament with undefeated Placer having a large enough enrollment to get bumped up to the more daunting 16-team Division III field and 9-1 Sonora dropping to Division V. Lathrop begins with No. 8 Los Banos (6-4).
“People are saying the level goes down with Placer going up and Sonora going down, but from top to bottom there are some very good teams in the division,” Pirillo said.
Included is Valley Oak League rival Sierra, one of three bubble teams with a 5-5 record to get in. Down 27-13 at halftime of Friday’s regular-season finale with visiting Weston Ranch, the Timberwolves came back to win 34-27 to give themselves a chance at a seventh postseason appearance in the last eight years. Weston Ranch could have punched its ticket with a win but will miss the playoffs for a 10th straight season.
Not surprisingly, Manteca (8-2), Ripon (6-4) and Ripon Christian (8-2) — all of which already had their postseason seats reserved going into their Week 10 contests — are hosting for the first round.
Of the 72 qualifying teams in Divisions I-VI, 51 get automatic bids with the rest advancing based on overall wins — six is usually the magic number — and other tiebreaking factors such as head-to-head result and total number of opponents’ wins.
Sierra coach Jeff Harbison said he didn’t want his players to think about any of that before the dramatic turnaround.
“I told them we’re not playing for next week, we’re playing for the next 24 minutes. And the kids came through,” Harbison said.
Seeded third, they’re rewarded with at least one more game at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium. Sierra is matched with No. 6 Union Mine (7-3) of El Dorado.
“I like the idea of having another home game,” Harbison said.”The kids get to play in front of our fans another week and we’re grateful to be playing another game.”
So why the higher seeds for teams that placed fourth and fifth place in the Valley Oak League? Strength of schedule (opponents’ wins) had much to with it. All five of the VOL’s playoff qualifiers are seeded no lower than sixth. League champ Central Catholic is No. 1 in Division III, and Oakdale is seeded second ahead of undefeated teams. Manteca is No. 6.
“It shows how great the VOL has been,” Pirillo said. “I also think they’re rewarding progress and how teams are playing later in the season. We’re also playing tough nonleague schedules, so we’re doing things we need to do to get higher seeds.”
Lathrop played — and beat — two conference champions Liberty Ranch and Ripon and lost its season opener to Division II qualifying West of Tracy. Liberty Ranch (6-4) could get another shot at the Spartans in the semifinals, as it is seeded fourth and plays host to Dixon. Second-seeded Calaveras (7-4) and No. 7 Center (6-4) round out Division IV. Both also come from tradition-rich conferences, Calaveras from the Mother Lode League and Center from the Pioneer Valley League, but neither compare to the VOL in recent years.
“They saw our complete schedule and believe we are deserving of (the No. 1 seed),” Pirillo said. “When you think about it it makes sense what they did.”
The speculation has already begun: Two all-VOL championship games?
While Lathrop and Sierra duke it out in Division IV, the Central Catholic and Oakdale are expected to meet again in the Division III finals after CC staved off the Mustangs 42-37 on Friday. Neither one has a cakewalk to the final, however. Inderkum, Patterson and Placer — seeded 3-5 in that order — each have perfect records, and No. 6 Manteca (8-2) was section champion just two years ago. Oakdale is the defending Division III crown, while Central Catholic won the Division IV banner en route to a third straight state title.
“Division III is absolutely one of the most brutal brackets,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said.
Manteca has familiar foes lined up on its side of the bracket. First up is No. 11 Central Valley (7-3) in a rematch of the 2013 Division III opener that set section records for scoring. Manteca won 69-55, and it proved to be its toughest test in the section title run.
“That was one of the most memorable games I’ve ever coached. It was absolute craziness,” Reis said. “We’re not overlooking them.”
Central Valley’s only Western Athletic Conference loss was to Patterson. It also lost to Sierra 23-13, which the Buffaloes decisively beat, 43-8. Manteca also has history with Inderkum, a potential second-round opponent it previously vanquished in the 2013 semifinals.
Ripon appears to be unaffected seeding-wise by Friday’s loss at Hughson, which prevented the Indians from claiming an outright Trans-Valley League crown. They’re seeded third in a Division V bracket that gets tougher with the inclusion of No. 1 Sonora, which defeated Ripon 36-20 in a nonleague contest. The Indians are pitted with Bear River (7-3), losers of three straight.
Hughson (8-2) is fifth and heads to Orestimba, one of two 10-0 teams in this field. Capital Christian, the Division VI champ a year ago, also has a perfect record and is seeded second.
Ripon Christian (7-3) is No. 4 in Division VI and tangles with No. 5 Golden Sierra for a second straight year. Last season, the Knights traveled to Garden Valley and won 34-13 in the first round. TVL co-champion Hilmar (7-3) is a big favorite as the No. 1 seed. Bradshaw Christian (8-2) and Gustine (9-1) are 2 and 3, respectively.
Section championships for Divisions IV-VI will take place Nov. 28 at sites yet to be determined. The Division III final is set for Saturday, Dec. 5 starting 1 p.m. at Lincoln High of Stockton.
The California Interscholastic Federation has expanded its format for the state championships. All section winners will qualify for CIF regional bowl games with Northern and Southern California winners squaring off for state titles. In years past there five division championships (Divisions I-IV and an Open final) with section commissioners voting on bowl participants.
The new divisions are: Open Large, Open Small, 1AA, 1A, 2AA, 2A, 3AA, 3A, 4AA, 4A, 5AA, 5A and 6AA.