Joe Davidson

In expanded football playoffs, every section champion has another game

Del Oro coach Casey Taylor is happy to play at Liberty of Bakersfield after his team’s amazing turnaround.
Del Oro coach Casey Taylor is happy to play at Liberty of Bakersfield after his team’s amazing turnaround. Special to The Bee

In years past, this was a contentious Sunday for high school football.

Commissioners from the 10 sections that make up the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing bodies for high school sports, annually meet to crunch data, compare scores, debate strength of schedules, and then decide which teams advance past section-title rounds and which stay home. In that scenario, a lot of champions were left empty-handed, and were generally confused or angry, or both.

This is no longer the case.

When member schools voted – and generally pleaded – for regional playoff expansion, the CIF responded, and here we are. After years of coming out looking like the bearer of bad news in telling section champions, some with one or no losses, that their seasons were over, everyone is in a happier place now.

Now every section champion in California has another game, including Folsom, Del Oro, Bradshaw Christian and East Nicolaus locally, with each playing Friday in divisions large, medium, small and smaller for a Northern California Regional Championship. Games are at home sites.

CIF Associate Executive Director Ron Nocetti said teams were pitted against each other based on competitive equity – what looks and feels like a good game – more than enrollment. The CIF also avoided any “rematch” games, not because it was part of any criteria (it isn’t), but to add a different element.

One train of thought leading into the weekend was Folsom playing Clayton Valley Charter of Concord for a NorCal title, a rematch of a Zero Week game in which Folsom prevailed by a point.

Instead, Folsom (14-0) will host Bellarmine Prep of San Jose (12-1), a longtime Central Coast Section powerhouse, in the Division I-AA game.

And there was curiosity in Loomis as why Del Oro (8-6) would be driving to Southern California to play Liberty of Bakersfield (9-3) for the Division II-AA NorCal title game. By any measure, Bakersfield is in the South. But to balance the playoff brackets, the Central Section teams – largely from Fresno and Bakersfield – were divided up. Three Central Section champions – Divisions I, III and V – were slotted in the North and Divisions II, IV and VI were placed in the South.

“It came down to numbers,” Nocetti said. “Otherwise, we’d have teams with byes, or play-in games. To truly balance out the numbers, we have the same number of Central Section teams in the North (six).”

Del Oro coach Casey Taylor said he’s not complaining. His season is still alive, a far cry from when the Golden Eagles sat at a battered and bewildered 2-6. They have since won six straight and became the first school in Sac-Joaquin Section history to win a section title with six losses.

“It’ll be a long drive, but we’ll play anyone,” Taylor said. “We’re happy to play anyone. We always like our chances.”

All told, 51 teams will play in NorCal and SoCal title games, up from 31 last year. The Southern Section in Southern California advances 13 section winners from a section that has 700 schools.

The Sac-Joaquin Section, of which Bradshaw Christian, Del Oro and Folsom are members, advanced all seven section champions. This section is the second largest in the state with 197 schools. Bradshaw Christian (12-2) plays at Immanuel of Reedley (10-2) in the Division V-AA contest. In the Division VI-AA game, Stone Ridge Christian of Merced (13-1) plays at East Nicolaus (11-2) of the Northern Section.

And for those who argue that there are too many teams, too many divisions involved – watered down, in other words – Nocetti countered with some facts. The CIF member schools pushed for this. Decide the champions on the field and outside of a board room. The regional expansion idea was initially hatched within the Sac-Joaquin Section by since-retired section commissioner Pete Saco. What’s more, this is the most populated state in the country with huge differences in enrollment.

And the prevailing thought, Nocetti said, was how can some section champions advance and others not?

“It got to a point where we no longer wanted to tell a 14-0 team that you didn’t get picked for another game,” Nocetti said. “We wanted to make sure no champions were left out. The (10) commissioners came back in the meeting room (Sunday), and they said, ‘I didn’t have one school complain.’ Half didn’t even ask what division they’re in. The commissioners said, ‘this is great! We’re going to continue, and we’re thankful for that!’

“We’ve never had that reaction before.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD