As the latest high school season approached, the CIF Southern Section opened its doors, allowing for some questions to be asked that have long been on the mind.
Commissioner Rob Wigod met with reporters over the past two weeks, giving those who have heard the concerns of the teams in their area a seat at the table.
A year ago, the football playoffs were a source of hot debate. Many wanted to know how a Brethren Christian High team that went undefeated on the field (with one forfeit) could be left out of the bracket.
New playoff groupings were supposed to help solve this problem, weren’t they? The mishaps, if they occurred, would stand out less than the 2015 playoff berth given to Placentia El Dorado, which finished that regular season at 1-9 overall.
Information was released that all but one team that had secured an automatic playoff berth made the playoffs in the Southern Section’s top nine divisions. In Brethren Christian’s case, it was the victim of circumstances beyond its control.
At a very late date, Sage Hill dropped its 11-man football program, disbanding the Academy League and the automatic berth that came with being the champion of the former four-team league. The Warriors, San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret’s, and Irvine Crean Lutheran instantly became freelance teams.
If any sport was bound to run into these sorts of issues, it was football, which is subject to the 16-team fixed bracket. No wildcard round exists to accommodate other deserving teams.
Therefore, it was never a question of if Brethren Christian was deserving. The Warriors had to sweat it out to the end to see if the stars would align and all the playoff spots within their division would not be taken by teams falling within their league’s allotted playoff bids.
Things did not break Brethren Christian’s way. The fallout since has seen the Warriors lose their 11-man program, subsequently followed by the retirement of Coach Pat McInally.
“We’re all very, very sorry to hear that they had to drop their program,” Wigod said of Brethren Christian. “They had been pretty successful the last few years. Coach McInally, what a great guy, great person to have as a head football coach at a high school with his background.
“It was unfortunate. None of us took any joy or satisfaction out of what happened to that particular school, but again, we have to follow the rules that are in place.”
Newport Harbor was the one team from the top nine divisions that put itself in a position to make the postseason through the league qualifier, yet did not make the cut. Like Brethren Christian, the Sailors’ chances were subject to the number of openings.
When the season ended, a committee was left to debate the candidacy of three third-place teams for two remaining playoff spots. Newport Harbor was the one left out, owing to the strength of schedule argument.
Wigod was adamant in stating that Newport Harbor had received its fair shake, as a win over Los Alamitos in the final week of the regular season would have resulted in both the Sailors and the Griffins making the postseason (Los Alamitos presented a better case as a third-place team for the committee).
As the issue of crowded playoff divisions persists, those in the lower divisions will not want to leave their hopes up to the committee. The surest way to make the playoffs is through one’s league. In every division, the top two seeds from each league made the football playoffs.
The opportunity to decide one’s fate on the field resides with those league games. For those that feel that road is too tough, there are releaguing configurations that are set to go into effect next year.
At the end of the day, rules are rules, and changes have been made to try to make the playoff-qualifying formula better. Thom Simmons, the Assistant Commissioner of Athletics for the CIF-SS, made note of one change that has made the playoff games themselves more competitive.
“Under the old system, the success that one player might have generated for that one team could have moved five other teams up with them – five other teams that had no business being moved up.
“The entire league moved up. All the schools in that league would move up because of that one team. Long Beach Poly is a prime example of that. If you look at the Moore League, those five other teams that are in the Moore League have no business being in Division 1, but because they were under the old system, they got moved up.”
Teams, rather than entire schools, are placed in divisions now, with each sport being considered individually. In a local example, Wigod pointed out that a team like Laguna Beach water polo could have inappropriately moved the other teams in the Orange Coast League up to Division 1 before newer playoff formulas were adopted.
Last year marked the first that the CIF-SS had integrated its new approach of determining playoff groupings based off of a two-year window. Wigod felt that they saw improved results, including closer first-round games and an influx of first-time champions.
He admitted that the system, like any other, is not perfect. It’s not a finished product.
“At the end of this year, the two years that we’ll be using will be absolutely the same kind of format in the divisions that we’ve had,” Wigod said. “We expect that to be a step forward.
“We had to get it started. I think as we’ve evaluated it and talked to our schools about it, I think it’s gone about as well as it could have gone.”