LODI -- Pete Saco, who was influential in reshaping high school sports in California, announced Thursday he will retire as the Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner on Aug. 31.
Saco, who has been the governing executive since 1993 of the fastest-growing section of the 10 in the state, , pushed ideas – some initially questioned by peers and regional administrators – to improve high school sports, including:
• The CIF State Bowl football games that started in 2006.
• The Northern California and Southern California Regional football games that started in 2012.
• The Open Division for basketball – ensuring that the elite teams are in one bracket, regardless of enrollment – that started in 2013.
• The mandatory 30-day sit-out rule for transfers that started in the section five years ago and is now a state-wide mandate.
• Memorial scholarships and community service awards and a Hall of Fame that has honored athletes, coaches, administrators, officials and journalists.
• Securing venues to add to the “wow” experience for athletes, including Sleep Train Arena for the section basketball playoffs, Sacramento State for section championship football games, UC Davis for the section volleyball finals and Pacific for the section baseball title series.
“It’s been a great ride,” said Saco, 61, who is looking forward to retirement with his wife, Barbara. “It’s been my goal to make high school sports a great experience for kids, and I think we’ve done that. For 99 percent of these kids, this is the end of the line in athletics, their last song and dance, and it’s important that we give them a great venue and experience. And it’s important that we make sure people are following the rules.”
Saco oversaw eight realignments, the shuffling of high school leagues to maintain competitive balance based on enrollment and team success. The changes were needed as the section grew into the second largest in the state.
Saco also didn’t hesitate to enforce his power to deny transfers based on athletics, particularly for students who arrived from out of state or out of the country. If he hadn’t enforced transfer rules, Saco said, there would be “absolute chaos.”
“The direction Pete has offered this section is unparalleled,” said section president Debbi Holmerud. “He has been a voice for equity for all students and schools, and has been willing to make difficult decisions when that equity has been challenged. He will be missed.”
The section’s Board of Managers, comprised of principals and administrators, and Executive Committee plan to name Saco’s successor by April.
Saco said he’s concerned about the impact of club sports, misguided parents who try to create AAU-like teams in high school, the financial burden on some of the struggling programs and the turnover of principals and athletic directors.
“Parents trying to get kids to go to other schools, some don’t quite grasp the end result,” Saco said. “I’m worried about club sports. The NCAA visits us every year to look into eligibility concerns. Kids who play AAU? That’s great. Play AAU in the offseason. When it comes to the high school season, play with your high school, in your neighborhood. That’s what high school sports should be all about.”
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