Rob Richards is embracing a new frontier for high school athletic competition.
Richards, the Antelope High School boys basketball coach, speaks for numerous public school coaches who feel they now have a chance to compete in the playoffs, free from the clutches of private schools that have dominated.
Welcome to a new era in the Northern California basketball playoffs with the addition this year of an Open Division.
Regardless of enrollment, the heavyweight programs - mostly private schools with Division I talent - are grouped in the Open Division, which should produce some dream matchups while allowing public schools more chance to excel in their divisions.
"It's really about the overall high school experience," said Richards, whose program is a two-time defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champion and is seeded second in the NorCal D-II field. "No public school coach or team wants to go to a game, look over and see five starters that don't live anywhere near their school. We have a handful of guys who grew up in the same neighborhood and have been together since they were 8 years old. That's what this is supposed to be about, and now we have a shot in the playoffs."
Twenty of the 25 state champions in the boys divisions the past five seasons have been private schools, programs without residential boundaries and often without budgetary cutbacks that haunt public schools. For the girls, 21 of the last 25 champions were private schools.
While the Open concept benefits public schools such as Antelope, it can be argued it punishes other public schools such as Sheldon. Because of their success, the Huskies have been put into the Open Division with such private-school heavyweights as Salesian of Richmond and Archbishop Mitty of San Jose.
Like most public schools, Sheldon relies heavily on home-grown athletes. Four senior starters have grown up through the ranks, with Dakarai Allen and D'Erryl Williams helping lead the Huskies to four straight Division I section championships.
With that section success and its lofty state rankings, Sheldon met the criteria for the Open Division.
Sheldon coach Joey Rollings embraces the challenge of being in the Open Division but is miffed at drawing a No. 4 seed. The Huskies are ranked second in Northern California by Cal-Hi Sports and MaxPreps, behind only Salesian, the top-ranked team in the state.
"I have mixed feelings about the Open," Rollings said. "We want to win a state championship. Instead of having to go through a few private schools like before to get to a state title, we're now in a field full of them."
The 10 section commissioners in the state who decided the seedings initially had Sheldon third behind Salesian and Mitty, both of which beat Sheldon in close games. But the Huskies wound up fourth, behind defending NorCal Division III champion Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland, because the commissioners wanted to avoid teams from the same section - Salesian and O'Dowd - possibly playing in a semifinal game. Sheldon and No. 7 Newark Memorial are the only public schools in the seven-team Open Division.
So instead of a possible NorCal championship between the two top-ranked teams at Sleep Train Arena, a Salesian-Sheldon semifinal would instead be played March 12 in the East Bay.
"They stuck the best two teams in the North on the same side," Rollings said. "I don't know. But we'll stay the course. We'll be fine."
When the Open concept was adopted for the state football championships in 2008, there was similar concern, but it has become the event's premier game.
Similar success is predicted for basketball, CIF Executive Director Roger Blake said.
"Our vision going into this," he said, "was that we've got a group of schools across the state that play at a different level than most of the others. They play in a different sandbox. They travel all over the place, play at an elite level. They need to be in the Open.
"We'll see some of the best games ever played in California because they're playing each other now, and you're going to see new state champions in other divisions, too. I don't see any downside to it."
Under the previous format, Sheldon would have been the top seed in the Division I field. Instead, Deer Valley of Antioch and Pleasant Grove - Sheldon was a combined 4-0 against them - landed the top two seeds. Teams can request to move up to the Open Division, but teams picked for the top division cannot opt out. Longtime power De La Salle of Concord requested an Open spot but was surprisingly excluded, setting up a potential Division I semifinal against Pleasant Grove.
On the girls side, Sacramento is seeded fifth in the eight-team Open Division, leaving Dragons coach Michele Massari with mixed emotions. Though the Dragons have won three section titles in a row, they have not been ranked high in the state the last few seasons, nor do they have a history of NorCal championship success as other Open teams such as Bishop O'Dowd, St. Mary's of Stockton and Mitty.
Six of the girls Open teams are private schools. Sacramento is a charter school.
Said Massari: "I have to be (politically correct) about this, and we'll play whoever they put us up against, and we'll compete like we always do."