Schools Devising Playoff Game Plans : Coaches Map Strategies to Counter the Quirks in New System

Times Staff Writer

Many coaches and administrators applauded last spring when a new Southern Section basketball playoff grouping based on enrollment was approved by the section’s general council.

The new system, which starts this season, will provide for champions in 9 divisions, 3 more than in the previous season, and as many as 96 additional teams will qualify for the playoffs.

Until this season, entire leagues were classified in one postseason division based on strength of the league, previous success in the playoffs and average enrollment. This season, each school will be grouped solely on its enrollment, irrespective of the placement of the other schools in its league.

In short, more teams will qualify for the Southern Section playoffs, there will be more section champions and, because those section champions automatically qualify for the state playoffs, more teams will be guaranteed berths in the state tournament. A great idea, huh?


Ideally, yes. But as the section’s 65 leagues begin the long road to the playoffs this week, not everything appears to be going according to plan.

For openers, some parochial schools that have enjoyed success in the 5-A division (formerly the largest division) despite relatively low enrollments are now grouped in lower divisions. Southern Section administrators originally thought these schools would decide to move up and play in the 5-AA or 5-A divisions, the highest levels of competition under the new system. But most schools are deciding to stay wherever they are reclassified. Under the new plan, teams can elect to move up in class, though they may not move down.

Coaches at Bishop Amat, St. Bernard and St. Paul all indicated this week that they will remain in their new, lower divisions. School administrators have until Friday to submit a written form to the Southern Section office indicating that they would prefer to move up.

Alex Acosta, who led Bishop Amat in La Puente to a 27-4 record and the runner-up spot in the 5-A division last season, said his school will remain at the 4-A division level. Bishop Amat is 11-4 this season.

“We’re 4-A and that’s where we’re staying,” Acosta said. “The way I look at it, a CIF title is a title no matter what division you’re playing in. I’m sure there are some other coaches who think we should be moving up, but to each their own.”

Jim McClune has led St. Bernard into the 5-A division semifinals in 3 of the past 5 seasons. St. Bernard (11-2) will likely play in the 3-A division this year, although McClune said he has not made a final decision.

“The trophy is the same, the patches are the same, although there might be a little more prestige playing on the highest level,” McClune said. “I don’t feel that I’m expected to go to the 5-AA.”

Another problem is the varying number of schools in each division. Each league is guaranteed of advancing its top 3 finishers in the 32-team brackets of each division. Teams finishing lower than third but with a .500 record will be considered for wild-card entries.

Based on raw numbers, some divisions will have a fair share of wild-card entries. Other divisions will be tough to crack after the top 3 finishers have been selected.

For example, the 3-A division has 66 schools now vying for 32 playoff spots. A 3-AA division was not devised because administrators originally felt there wouldn’t be enough schools to fill it based on last year’s playoff figures.

Meanwhile, there are 19 boys’ teams and 26 girls’ teams vying in the 2-AA division. Will the section go with a 16-team bracket? No decision will be made until it’s known how many teams with .500 records will qualify.

Mike Dinneen, St. Paul coach, wonders if there will be a place for his team if it finishes fourth in the Angelus League should he decide to remain in a crammed 3-A division.

“I spent all day Sunday researching the divisions,” Dinneen said. “There are so many teams in the 3-A, I’m wondering if there’s going to be an opening for a fourth-place team?”

St. Paul (11-5) will play in a 5-team league, meaning it plays only 8 league games. Dinneen said it is conceivable that his team could go 3-5 in league play, finish with a 15-11 record overall and be left out of the playoffs should he decide to remain in the 3-A division.

“It’s sort of a crap shoot at this time,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can predict what will happen. What happens if 20 teams decide to move up from 3-A to 4-A? We might be better off staying where we’re at.

“My main consideration is just getting in. I probably still won’t know what I’m going to do come Thursday night.”

Some coaches are making group decisions. Three of Orange County’s top teams--Mater Dei, Capistrano Valley and Ocean View--are in the 5-A division. Jim Harris, Ocean View coach, said he discussed any possible moves with Gary McKnight of Mater Dei and Mark Thornton of Capistrano Valley.

“I sat down with Gary and Mark and we asked ourselves, ‘Why in the world should we all play in the same division if we have an option to move up?’ ” Harris said. “Gary jumped at that right away and said he was going up to 5-AA.”

McKnight said Tuesday he expects Mater Dei to move to 5-AA.

Although the coaches are playing within the rules, Steve Popovich of Marina believes that giving schools the option to change divisions could create problems.

“I think they made a big mistake by giving teams the option of moving up,” Popovich said. “People start playing games . . . deals are made. It could get political to the point of collusion.”

Tim Travers, El Toro coach, asks, “What are we doing here? Coaching basketball or handicapping horses?”

Dean Crowley, associate commissioner of the Southern Section, concedes there will likely be some problems with seeding teams, teams that change divisions and advancing qualified teams into the 3-A division in the first season.

“With anything new, there’s going to be some problems,” Crowley said. “But we’ll get through it the first year and then address any problems.

“Originally, I thought some of the parochial schools would move up. It also looks like we may have to make some changes in the 3-A division. Our original figures based on last year were off.

“In retrospect, we may review the process of moving up and decide that schools should make a decision in early October, not after they’ve played a month.

“But I’m excited. This is something new for everyone . . . an exciting change. It will take a little fine-tuning, but in the long run, it will be good.”

PLAYOFF GROUPINGS FOR COUNTY TEAMS Divisional playoff assignments Based on October 1988 enrollment Figures provided by Southern Section STATE DIVISION I

Southern Section 5-AA (Over 2,400) Total: 44 boys’ teams, 43 girls’ Fountain Valley (Sunset League) Huntington Beach (Sunset) Saddleback (Sea View) Santa Ana (Century)

Southern Section 5-A (2,000-2,399) Total: 38 boys’, 38 girls’ Anaheim (Orange) Capistrano Valley (South Coast) Dana Hills (South Coast) Edison (Sunset) El Toro (South Coast) Esperanza (Empire) Irvine (South Coast) Los Alamitos (Empire) Marina (Sunset) Mater Dei (Angelus) Ocean View (Sunset) Santa Ana Valley (Century) Westminster (Sunset) STATE DIVISION II

Southern Section 4-AA (1,750-1,999) Total: 40 boys’, 39 girls’ Canyon (Century) El Modena (Century) Kennedy (Garden Grove) Mission Viejo (South Coast) Orange (Pacific Coast) San Clemente (South Coast) Sunny Hills (Freeway) Tustin (Sea View) University (Sea View) Valencia (Orange)

Southern Section 4-A (1,500-1,999) Total: 47 boys’, 46 girls’ Buena Park (Freeway) Cypress (Empire) Fullerton (Freeway) Garden Grove (Garden Grove) Katella (Empire) La Habra (Freeway) Loara (Empire) Villa Park (Century) Woodbridge (Pacific Coast) STATE DIVISION III

Southern Section 3-A (1,000-1,499) Total: 66 boys’, 66 girls’ Bolsa Grande (Garden Grove) Brea-Olinda (Orange) Corona del Mar (Sea View) Costa Mesa (Pacific Coast) El Dorado (Empire) Estancia (Sea View) Foothill (Century) Laguna Hills (Pacific Coast) Los Amigos (Garden Grove) Magnolia (Orange) Newport Harbor (Sea View) Pacifica (Garden Grove) Rancho Alamitos (Garden Grove) Savanna (Orange) Servite* (Angelus) Trabuco Hills (Pacific Coast) Troy (Freeway) Western (Orange) *Boys only STATE DIVISION IV

Southern Section 2-AA (750-999) Total: 19 boys’, 26 girls’

Southern Section 2-A (400-749) Total: 31 boys’, 37 girls’ Laguna Beach (Pacific Coast) Connelly* (Sunrise) Orange Lutheran (Olympic) Rosary* (Angelus) Santa Margarita (Olympic) Whittier Christian (Olympic) *Girls only STATE DIVISION V

Southern Section 1-A (Over 150-399) Total: 47 boys’, 45 girls’ Capistrano Valley Christian (Olympic) Southern California Christian (Arrowhead)

Southern Section Small Schools (0-149) Total: 83 boys’, 83 girls’ California Lutheran (Academy) Garden Grove Claremont (Express) Liberty Christian (Academy) St. Margaret’s (Academy) St. Michael’s Prep* (Academy) *Boys only

Note: Mater Dei is expected to move up to 5-AA; Laguna Beach may move to 2-AA.