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This Basketball Season, You Can’t Tell the Divisions Without a Program

Times Staff Writers

Though a league game has yet to be played, the Southern Section’s new basketball playoff system, based strictly on enrollment, is making waves.

And it’s some really muddy water.

Under the new structure this season, teams from the same league can play in several different playoff divisions. Unlike past seasons when playoff participation was based solely on league placement--the top three teams went automatically--the new groupings are also based on how a team ranks in its own division.

The top three teams in each league will still go to the playoffs, but with divisions such as the 2-AA, which has only 19 boys’ teams competing for probably 16 playoff spots, a .500 record gives a team an almost automatic playoff berth.

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None of Orange County’s 10 major high school leagues will have all their members playing in the same playoff division this season. Particularly schizophrenic are the six-team Pacific Coast and Century leagues. Century League teams will play in five divisions; Pacific Coast League teams will play in four.

After years of schools competing in playoffs against schools significantly larger (or smaller), the Southern Section decided that birds of a feather should hoop together.

OK, size plays size, it works in Pop Warner. But what about leagues, which are based less on enrollment and more on geography? The Pacific Coast, for example, has schools as diverse in size as Woodbridge (enrollment 1,600, according to the Southern Section) and Laguna Beach (800).

“I’ve been screaming for something like this for years,” said Ed Bowen, Laguna Beach coach. “Finally the Southern Section comes along and helps me out.”

But is what’s good for the school good for the league?

What happens when the question is not only who will make the playoffs, but in which division they’ll play? Are league games less important when the fifth-place team gains a playoff berth because it’s in a cupcake division? Or how about when a game against a league rival is only as important as one between teams in your division far, far away?

Hey, anybody seen the Tehachapi-Kern Valley score?

“I think the fact that if you’re over .500 gives you a pretty good chance to make the playoffs could take some of the luster off some rivalries,” said Bill Shannon, Woodbridge coach.

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A possible beneficiary is Laguna Beach, which is a 2-A program that may move up to the 2-AA division, which has only 19 boys’ teams and 26 girls’ teams, though those numbers could change if schools decide to move up. Nineteen boys’ teams competing for 16 playoff berths. You figure it out.

“I told my kids if we can just split the season, we can get into the playoffs,” Bowen said.

Some coaches are concerned that the importance of overall records may diminish the value of league standings and may drive some coaches to pad their schedules with some easy games.

“I spoke out against it (the .500 qualification) last spring,” said Shannon, a member of the Southern Section basketball coaches’ advisory committee.

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“It encourages people to play a very weak schedule. I always try to play a tough preseason. But, maybe what I need to do is wait for the ‘Games Wanted’ bulletin to come out and play the teams that are down.”

But Bowen, with the most to gain, isn’t padding. Though a .500 record may figure to get Laguna Beach a berth, it plays schools twice its size such as Palos Verdes, Huntington Beach and Foothill. Tonight, Laguna Beach plays Saddleback, a school nearly four times its size and currently No. 1 in Orange County.

“I know there are some schools that want to go all the way around the world (to play weak competition),” Bowen said. “But look at me, I’m playing Saddleback.”

Laguna Beach is 5-6, but Bowen thinks the caliber of competition his team will see, especially in league play, will make his team even better prepared for the playoffs.

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“If I get in, I told my kids the first 3 games will be easier than the season has been,” Bowen said.

Foothill played in the 4-A playoffs last season and will be in 3-A this season, and Coach Jim Reames is happy for the change. “If you do have a good team and you’re in a tough league and then you drop to play in the 2-A or 3-A playoffs, you could do some damage, because you played all of the tough teams in your league,” he said.

“The last 3 years we’ve been second in the Century League and we couldn’t get past the second round of the 4-A. I just know that the last 7 or 8 years we would have had a better chance playing in 3-A than the 4-A, which was dynamite tough.”

But if a team isn’t competing in the same division as its league opponent, does that diminish the rivalry?

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Said Shannon: “I think some games will be less dramatic, games where two third-place teams are playing each other and they’re in different divisions and both over .500.”

But there are some who think the new system could create some new rivalries. For example, schools that never had a chance against league behemoths, may now have something to play for.

“I can see a team in fourth place, 2 games out of a playoff spot with an overall record of 13-12 playing the first-place team and a year ago they go in with nothing to play for,” said Greg Coombs, Santa Ana coach. “Now this year, that one extra win might get them into the playoffs. The game becomes important.”

CENTURY LEAGUE

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The 6 league teams will play in 5 different divisions in the basketball playoffs.

School Division Canyon 4-AA El Modena 4-AA Foothill 3-A Santa Ana 5-AA Santa Ana Valley 5-A Villa Park 4-A

PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE

The 6 league teams will play in 4 different divisions in the basketball playoffs

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School Division Costa Mesa 3-A Laguna Beach 2-AA Laguna Hills 3-A Orange 4-AA Trabuco Hills 3-A Woodbridge 4-A


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