Even the youngsters get tired playing a game that increasingly edges toward the warp speed seen at higher levels.
The Sac-Joaquin Section Board of Managers on Jan. 31 had an open forum to discuss altering the playoff format, specifically finding ways to trim the postseason schedule by at least a game to avoid horrific first-round blowouts – and to keep student-athletes safer when some seasons run up to 16 games.
The next section proposal meeting is in April in Lodi, when the member schools will vote in favor of change or remain status quo. And kudos to the section, which remains open-minded to becoming better through change. The section needs input from coaches and administrators to get a pulse of what is going on.
The primary proposal here is to reduce the playoff brackets for upper divisions from 16 teams to 12, thereby allowing the top four seeds in Divisions I through III to have an opening-round bye. Divisions IV through VI have eight-team brackets.
The byes would prevent lopsided opening-round scores that have become the norm, and, more important, reduce the risk of exhaustion, which leads to injury.
Folsom and Oak Ridge were the top seeds in the 2017 Division I playoffs and opened with blowouts of 76-9 and 63-12, punctuated by running clocks in the second half. Thirteen first-round games were decided by 30 or more points in the top four divisions.
“One fewer game would make a big difference,” said Folsom coach Kris Richardson, whose 2014 and 2017 teams went 16-0 and won CIF State championships. “For us, we’ve been fortunate to be pretty much injury-free over the years, but when you’re getting into Week 14, 15 and 16, high school bodies are worn out, and that’s dangerous.”
Said Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere, “Yes, I am in favor of the new proposal. This will keep games more competitive and reward the top seeds with a bye. It may even makes our teams more competitive in NorCal Regional games and state games with extra rest.”
There is no joy in crushing teams, so sportsmanship plays a role in a reduced schedule, too.
Placer rolled Natomas 53-6 in a section Division IV playoff opener, using a running clock late in the second quarter, en route to reaching the CIF State finals.
“When you win a game like that, you feel bad for their kids,” Placer coach Joey Montoya said. “We’re supposed to be competitive and play hard, but deep down, you put yourself in their shoes and feel for them, and it would not be a fun way to end a season by getting blown out like that.
“The proposed change makes sense to me, a no-brainer with a lot of merit.”
First-round routs do not inspire fans to rush out to stadiums, either, section assistant commissioner Will DeBoard said.
“It’s no secret,” DeBoard told The Modesto Bee. “The lopsided first-round games have been on a lot of people’s minds. You’re averaging a running clock and the fans recognize that. They’re not showing up for those games.”
Byes would also ensure a competitive fairness element to align with other sections. De La Salle, for example, played for the CIF State Open title in December at Sacramento State and finished with 13 games, three fewer than Folsom.
“Our section needs to look at what other sections are doing,” Richardson said. “Playing against teams in the NorCals or in state that have played as many as three fewer games puts any of us at a competitive disadvantage.”
The playoff proposal has been embraced by coaches in the southern part of the section as well. Oakdale, a Division III powerhouse, has played 59 games over four seasons, an average of nearly 15 a year.
“It’s too many games, even for kids who love to play,” Mustangs coach Trent Merzon said during the playoffs. “It’s a grind for all of us.”
Said Central Catholic of Modesto coach Roger Canepa, whose program has played 63 games in a four-year stretch, including winning state championships, “All the football guys are saying the same thing: Let’s cut it back a game or two. Do we really need all of these teams in the playoffs?’’
Another first-reading proposal by the Board of Managers was to limit the amount of automatic playoff qualifiers to just the league champion. The brackets in this new idea would start with league champions and fill out with others based by rankings, thus rewarding teams that embrace taxing schedules. So even a quality loss to a powerhouse team could conceivably carry more weight than a blowout over a lesser nonleague team.
“For those schools that have a hard time finding schools to play them, that won’t be the case anymore,” DeBoard said. “Even if you play a strong team and lose, you won’t be punished for it. It’s a good loss.”
Said Cavaliere of Oak Ridge, “This should really weigh strong with who gets in and where the seedings fall.”