The Valley Oak League is welcoming three small-school powers for this pandemic-shortened year in sports.
Sierra High principal and league president Steve Clark met with athletic directors on Friday to discuss how they can move forward based on California Department of Public Health guidelines and recommendations from the California Interscholastic Federation and Sac-Joaquin Section.
They voted in favor of adding Escalon, Ripon and Ripon Christian to a stacked lineup of medium-school heavy hitters including Manteca Unified's East Union, Manteca, Sierra and Weston Ranch. The VOL is also home to Oakdale, Central Catholic and Kimball. Lathrop, MUSD's fifth high school, will remain in the Western Athletic Conference.
“We're thrilled to be adding three storied athletic programs to the VOL, which itself has a strong history,” Clark said. “We're talking about three of the top teams in the toughest small-school conference in California to arguably one of the toughest conferences in any division on Northern California. It should make for a pretty interesting league, even if temporary.”
In 2019, Ripon's football team claimed the CIF State Division 4-AA championship while Escalon won the Division 4-A title. Both are coming from the Trans-Valley League.
Ripon Christian hails from the Southern Athletic League but competes in the more competitive TVL for basketball. The Knights' boys basketball team rolled to the 2019-20 NorCal Division VI crown just days before Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a statewide shutdown because of the coronavirus, starting a 10-month break for youth and high school sports.
Both the TVL and SAL have schools in more than two counties each, which is problematic for scheduling purposes while under the state's restrictive guidelines. Teams may only compete with opponents in their own counties or bordering counties that are in the same colored tier.
Ripon athletic director Rod Wright confirmed his school's move to the VOL. He met with other TVL athletic directors on Thursday.
Modesto Christian, Riverbank and Hughson remain in the TVL, which may look to link up with SAL members in Stanislaus County. Schools from both leagues located farther south — such as Delhi, Hilmar, Le Grand and Livingston — will be part of a temporary league in Merced County.
“We just want to give the kids the most opportunities to play,” Wright said.
San Joaquin and all surrounding counties are still in the purple tier, the most restrictive of California's four-tiered reopening plan. The only sports allowed while in the purple are cross country, golf, tennis, swimming and track and field. There is hope for baseball and softball as lowering COVID-19 transmission rates inch the county closer to the red tier. High-contact sports like football, soccer and volleyball are in the orange tier. Basketball, cheer and wrestling are in the yellow.
Also on Friday, the VOL approved a two-season schedule proposed by Manteca A.D. Bill Slikker. The first season will comprise of purple-tier sports, and both schedules will last eight weeks. Earlier this week, the SJS voted to allow its 26 leagues to come up with their own sports calendars.
“This is to allow maximum student participation,” Clark said. “Now, the focus is on purple-tier sports. We are going to work baseball and softball into the schedule in the event that we move into the red tier.”
Clark said the league is targeting competitions to start the week of Feb. 15. He will meet with athletic directors again next Wednesday to finalize schedules, safety protocols and further deliberate on the structure of the season, which could include VOL-only playoffs. Manteca Unified's athletic programs hope to start official practices next week but must first get the go-ahead from the district.
“Everybody's excited to be talking about sports again after almost a year without it,” Clark said. “And our student-athletes are excited to get back on the field.”