Mike Wall was ecstatic with the results, a championship plaque in the hands of his players.
Son Jared, a sophomore, was standing next to him Saturday afternoon, a towel pressed to his bloody chin, feeling no pain.
The Walls – Mike, the veteran coach, and Jared, the gritty player never afraid to sprawl on the floor – had just guided Folsom High School to a CIF Northern California Division II championship.
The Bulldogs will be the only Sac-Joaquin Section boys basketball team playing for a state title Saturday at Sleep Train Arena. But amid the fun his team is having, Wall turned serious when asked about the formula for the state playoffs.
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His frown was a quick answer to the question: Is the Open Division the answer to the decades-long public school vs. private school debate? Public schools generally draw students from their neighborhoods. Private programs have no boundaries, giving the sense of an overwhelming advantage. Public schools have cycles – good years, down years, then a recovery. Private schools generally don’t have down cycles.
“Oh no, this is still a problem,” Wall said. “We have a public school situation that’s totally different than the private school situation. There should be a large-school private state championship and a (large) public school championship and have four public school divisions to battle it out.
“I find it absurd that if you’re losing at the end of the regular season, you get put in a lower bracket (by CIF section selection committee members) and you have a better chance at winning a state championship. In fact, if you’re playing better, you get a lesser chance to win if you’re in (the Open). That makes no sense.”
Wall cited Folsom’s football program as an example. The Bulldogs have had back-to-back 14-1 seasons, losing last season only to national powerhouse De La Salle in the NorCal Open championship game. Folsom players and coaches relished the chance to be the first NorCal team since 1991 to beat De La Salle, and these teams likely will be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 again in the preseason in Northern California this fall, so they could play in the Open title game again.
But if Folsom’s football team had lost a regular-season game last fall, Wall wonders if the Bulldogs would have been in Division I instead.
“There’s incentive to lose to not go into the Open,” Wall said, “and that’s ridiculous.”
For now, the Open works. It has added fairness to the playoffs.
The basketball Open NorCal and state title games had become a private school party, even though only 15 percent of the state’s 1,500 high schools are private. The Open, in its second year in basketball, lumps the power programs into one division, regardless of enrollment, and that often means private schools. And it will play out again this weekend in the Open title game, with national No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana defending its title against NorCal Open champion Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland. Mater Dei beat Archbishop Mitty of San Jose in last year’s Open final for its record 10th title.
Eleven of the 24 teams competing for state titles in six divisions this weekend are from public schools, yet the Division I boys and girls games, the showcase games until the Open was created, don’t include a private school.
So, yes, the public schools have a better chance now, and that pleases CIF Executive Director Roger Blake. In the D-I boys game, Monte Vista of Danville plays Centennial of Corona. In the girls game, Pleasant Grove plays Canyon Springs of Moreno Valley. The CIF wants to showcase its title games, and the best way to do that, Blake said, is to have balance. All 12 games will be aired live on Comcast SportsNet.
Wall and the Bulldogs look forward to playing St. John Bosco of Bellflower in the Division II game. Bosco is an emerging private school sports juggernaut that upended De La Salle last season in football in the Open State Bowl. The Braves’ basketball team, ranked fifth nationally early in the season, features three national recruits. Folsom has one player on the recruiting radar, sophomore guard Jordan Ford.
Wall isn’t conceding anything. The Bulldogs (32-2) have won 22 consecutive games and are as cohesive as any unit in the state. And they can look at history as a guide.
In 2005, Oak Ridge beat national No. 5 Mater Dei in the D-II final, scoring one for all public school underdogs.
“How do you eat an elephant?” Wall said. “One bite at a time.”