Realignment is generally viewed as a necessary evil for high school sports.
Within the Sac-Joaquin Section, league change is designed to achieve three primary goals: competitive balance, school enrollment and logistics. And in stamping an exclamation point on the latest changes in effect now, section officials came up with something uniquely fun: two super leagues.
The Sierra Foothill League and the Delta League are arguably the two most competitive football conferences in Northern California. Both will be on display Friday with league openers sure to kick off title races and playoff positioning down to the final quarters of the season. The SFL includes five of The Bee’s top seven teams, and the Delta has two of the top three and five of the top 11.
“It’s fun, it’s crazy, it’s ‘Holy cow, hold your breath and let’s go!’ ” Franklin coach Mike Johnson said, sizing up the leagues.
The SFL was already formidable with programs that boast CIF State Bowl pedigree: Bee No. 4 Rocklin, No. 6 Granite Bay and No. 7 Del Oro, and it got deeper with the addition of fifth-ranked Oak Ridge and top-ranked Folsom, state champion in 2010 and The Bee’s No. 1 team throughout 2012 and 2013.
Adding to the SFL intrigue are No. 13 Woodcreek and No. 17 Nevada Union, schools that went a combined 3-17 in 2013 but are a combined 7-1 now. The Delta, which merged with the Delta Valley Conference, features No. 2 Elk Grove, No. 3 Grant, No. 8 Jesuit, No. 9 Franklin and No. 11 Monterey Trail.
“I can’t wait for the atmosphere of each game,” Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere said. “It’ll feel like the playoffs every week.”
Folsom had a virtual target on its blue jerseys as it came to power in the old Delta River League, and it will even more so now in the SFL. Cavaliere wonders if Folsom isn’t perhaps the greatest team in section history. The Bulldogs open league play Friday against Granite Bay, which won the CIF State Division I championship in 2012, and then on Oct. 3, it’s Del Oro, which reached CIF Bowl games in 2011 and 2013.
“We’ll have to be ready every week, but it’s exciting,” Folsom co-coach Kris Richardson said. “We can’t wait.”
Amid the excitement lies some concern. Because of the depth of teams, the section will grant the SFL and Delta three automatic playoff entries each, though more expect to qualify. The other leagues will have two automatic playoff qualifiers with 28 at-large berths to be determined by the number of wins. Unlike before, teams will be seeded.
But will an SFL or Delta team get squeezed out of the postseason because, as Grant coach Mike Alberghini said, “we’re all eliminating each other?”
Total wins could hurt a team like Del Oro, which played the section’s most daunting nonleague schedule, including a loss to national power De La Salle to drop to 1-3. A potential scenario could be Del Oro finishing 5-5 and fourth in the SFL. The Golden Eagles could place behind a team they beat, with that foe advancing with a 6-4 record. No 5-5 teams made the playoffs in 2013.
“Del Oro causes problems with its nonleague schedule,” said Will DeBoard of the section office. “What is better about this change is, let’s say Del Oro gets in at 6-4 as a third-place automatic qualifier. Del Oro would’ve been seeded something like 13th before, but not now because we look at strength of schedule.”
Del Oro coach Casey Taylor said his team has to earn a playoff berth, regardless of early schedule results.
“If we can’t place in the top three in league, we don’t deserve to qualify, even if we might be better than other teams out there that do get in,” Taylor said. “But we like our chances. We feel with the quality of teams, the SFL is the best league around and we’ll respond.”
The strong leagues also make it difficult for area power programs to find nonleague opponents. Grant, for example, had to play two Fresno teams because previous opponents dropped the Pacers or others declined to sign on for a two-year, home-and-away series.
“No one wants to play teams like that, or the other really good programs,” said Johnson, the Franklin coach. “Why do you suppose Grant is playing out-of-area teams, or Del Oro, or Elk Grove, or Oak Ridge?”
Coaches fret over scheduling while players anticipate league matchups. Grant and Jesuit could play for the Delta championship in Week 10. The area powers haven’t faced each other since the 2003 playoffs.
“I’m always keeping an eye on what’s going on with teams in our league,” Jesuit receiver Isaiah Bailey said. “There’s tons of athleticism and hard-nose teams in our league. We’re excited to prove ourselves.”