Every summer, I field the same sort of question, be it through email, social media, phone calls or in person.
“Hey, you know this area. Where do I send my kid?”
These queries come from parents who do not deny that they are shopping their freshmen-to-be to the best school, the best sporting fit. I answer with: enroll them into your neighborhood school. Stay local and stay loyal.
That is rarely the answer they seek, but we’re not a placement service, and gotta go. Deadlines looming, man. In a perfect high school sporting world, neighborhood allegiances would continue to ring true. In a lot of instances, this is still the case, particularly in small towns such as Colfax, East Nicolaus and Winters, where kids grow up eager to be Falcons, Spartans or Warriors.
But we would be naive to think that this is the norm everywhere.
School-entry shopping isn’t a new trend; it’s been a theme for years. It has become more of a debate through social media, where everyone has a voice — and this week it was all about top-ranked Folsom.
Sierra Foothill League rival programs deem the Bulldogs to have unique advantages with open enrollment, which means incoming freshmen can come from outside the school district. The Bulldogs, SFL folks contend, need to pick on opponents their own size and speed. They’ve become too good.
Open enrollment can be an advantage, and parents willing to drive any distance to get their kid into a school — anywhere — have that right. It also happens for those seeking the best band, best theater, best performing arts programs, too.
But sports, especially football, draws the most intrigue, the largest crowds, the most heated debates. This is such a competitive society that social media posts are full of biting comments from parents, coaches, alums and general fans spouting off with their version of truth — who’s recruiting and who isn’t, who’s shopping, who’s loyal, all while insisting their own programs have done everything right.
Folsom has become a target by virtue of its success. The school continues to thrive academically and is surging in extra curricular activities and across the sports landscape. People want to teach there and coach there. Parents want their kids to go there. Students want to be there.
But it’s important to understand football context here. Folsom has not been a mega power in that sport for decades. Just this one. It used to be a small-school presence, and sometimes a powerhouse, in the 1960s through the early 1990s before a major housing boom bloated the enrollment to 2,400.
Terrific athletes, a good many of them homegrown, and top-tier coaching elevated matters.
Folsom struggled in the 2000s, celebrating winning seasons. It took years of work and tinkering with offenses for the program to close the gap on the regional heavyweights. The Bulldogs have seized this decade, largely through the contributions of players from the Junior Bulldogs feeder programs, going 119-10 with six Sac-Joaquin Section and three CIF State titles, including a 16-0 run last season.
What especially irks a lot of folks is the influx of four Reno-raised players. Three of them — Daniyel and Joe Ngata and Kaiden Bennett — came to Folsom as incoming freshmen, their parents saying openly that they sought out a school that fit their son’s best academic and athletic goals. Those three are also stellar students.
Pierre Chandon, a defensive end, enrolled at Folsom in February and was cleared to play last week because his was not a full family move. He wasn’t recruited to Folsom. Folsom’s profile lured his family.
This is the prep world we live in now. Name programs attract and recruit for themselves. It’s happened at Del Oro for various sports for years, and for Elk Grove for different sports, and at McClatchy for girls basketball. Area coaches take it as something darn-near criminal when athletes elevate programs out of their neighborhood. Folsom hears the heat now, SFL programs suggesting the competitive balance gap is so enormous that the Bulldogs should get out of the SFL and schedule national powers instead.
There’s one problem. Folsom isn’t at a national scale.
Folsom hasn’t been the No. 1 team in Northern California since 1963. The last area team that was No. 1 in the final Cal-Hi Sports NorCal rankings was Cordova in 1979. That’s eons ago. This area as a whole isn’t on a national scale.
Folsom isn’t even at De La Salle’s level, but the gap is closing. This was clear in a 14-0 loss to open the season at the home of the nationally renowned Spartans.
And any debate of Folsom needing to up its schedule is easier said than done. It took three years to secure a game with De La Salle as open dates have to line up. And De La Salle, for all of its remarkable pedigree, is scrambling to close the gap with St. Bosco of Bellflower and Mater Dei of Santa Ana, the Southern California heavies that are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the country and crushed the Spartans in each of the past two CIF State Open Division championship games at Sacramento State.
Rocklin coach Greg Benzel said last week of Folsom, “it’s from a different planet now, completely out of this atmosphere.”
What would Mater Dei and Bosco represent? A totally different animal indeed.
Those programs have taken in scores of transfers over the years, sometimes more than 15 in a season. The transfers are so rampant in the Southern Section that the CIF governing body cannot keep pace as parents quickly figure out which school suddenly needs a running back or defensive tackle.
In that section, athletes play right away after a transfer. That’s a unique advantage compared to Northern California, including in this section, where players generally sit 30 days or more per transfer policy if there isn’t a full-family move, which isn’t always easy to do if there is a house to sell.
Transfers and incoming freshmen are an epidemic that has coaches in the Southern Section concerned about competitive equity. In this region, it’s a trickle of a problem.
And prep sports go in cycles.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Cordova football was king. Rivals bemoaned the perceived unfairness that the Lancers had huge enrollment and nearby Mather Air Force Base populace from which to draw student-athletes. Then the Cordova football dynasty died.
In the 1990s, Jesuit football started to tower over the region. The Marauders still have a terrific program but they last reached a section championship in 2002. Area teams closed the gap.
In the 1990s, 2000s and much of this decade, Grant crushed all comers. Area teams closed the gap.
Folsom is in a decidedly up cycle now. It’s up to the region to close the gap because without a unanimous vote to go to an independent schedule, the Bulldogs are not going any where.