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Some Good News, Some Bad : New CIF Cage Playoff Format Draws Mixed Reviews

Times Staff Writer

When he learned that the CIF Southern Section was revamping its 1988-89 playoff format for boys and girls basketball teams to move in step with the state’s system, which is based on enrollment, El Monte High Coach John Gillette couldn’t believe his eyes.

For Gillette’s team, which has struggled in recent seasons since reaching the Southern Section 2-A Division final in 1985, it resulted in a giant leap up from the 2-A to the 5-A.

“I know the reasoning behind it--getting in line with the rest of the state,” he said. “But I can’t believe it. Hey, we have the largest section in the state. Why don’t they get in line with us?”

But Don Holbrook of Los Altos, whose girls team moved up from 3-A to 4-A, saw the change in a different light.

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“I think it was about time,” he said. “I think it’s the only way you can do the playoffs so you’re competing against teams your own size. I wish they’d do it for the leagues, too.”

Added St. Monica Coach Leo Klemm, whose boys team dropped from 5-A to 2-A: “I think like any change you’re going to affect a lot of people. But for the most part people are going to benefit by the change. . . . In the long run, I think it’s a good change.”

Under the change, the top three teams in each league (or two in a five-team league) are placed in one of nine playoff divisions based on enrollment. Teams with winning percentages of .500 or more can also be considered for a playoff berth.

The Southern Section 5-AA and 5-A will compete in Division I at the state level; 4-AA and 4-A in Division II; 3-A in Division III; 2-AA and 2-A in Division IV and 1-A and Small Schools in Division V. Divisions for all-boys and all-girls schools are determined by doubling the school’s enrollment.

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Dean Crowley, associate commissioner of athletics for the Southern Section, said the CIF had been discussing the possibility of a format change before it was approved by the Southern Section’s board of governors last spring.

“The state has gone to the enrollment format for the playoffs and we have teams that are smaller in enrollment competing against larger schools in their (state) division,” Crowley explained. “It doesn’t help the big schools because the big schools are good at any level. But last year we had no team (from the Southern Section) in the state playoffs in Division III.

“We were losing good teams from the tournament. We had no one in Division III and very few in Division IV and V (last year).”

Crowley said that, in the long run, the format change will benefit Southern Section teams.

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“When you get down to it, it’s going to allow some of the smaller schools to get into the state tournament,” he said. “We’re the largest section in the state, with over 500 schools, and we’re the only one playing by division.

“If we didn’t have a state championship in California, I would say we should go back to the old classification system. But under the circumstances, with state championships being conducted by enrollment, I think this is the fairest way to do it.”

That may sound fair to most coaches, but not everybody is enamored of the new system.

“I don’t think you can use just one criterion, such as enrollment, as a playoff basis,” said Alhambra’s Jim Wetmore, whose boys team steps up from 3-A to 5-AA. “We have a lot of Asians here and we have only one player over 5-11 on our squad. . . . I don’t think we’re really a 5-AA school, but we have no choice in the matter.

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“If the people who made this (change) walked around our campus, I think they’d be amazed. We’re a school of 3,300, but you should see our kids.”

Said Gillette: “What the CIF didn’t take into account is we’re 5-A in enrollment but where do we draw our talent from? . . . I thought the idea of divisions was meant to be equitable by talent. Now it’s done in a way that looks fair but it really isn’t.

“If we had this format in place a few years ago, we would have never made it to the (Southern Section) finals. . . . You start pairing us with teams like Capistrano Valley, Ocean View and Lakewood--give us a break. I think you’ve effectively eliminated a 2-A type of school from winning the title.”

Gillette said the format will almost certainly create numerous mismatches in the early rounds of the playoffs.

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“Say we finish third in our league and now we have to move up to play Mater Dei in the first round,” he said. “Holy cow! You’re going to see some real blowouts in the playoffs. At least on paper it would appear there’s a chance for a lot of blowouts throughout the championships.”

Wetmore doesn’t think his team has much of a chance if it makes the playoffs.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “If we go up against a team that goes say 6-7, 6-7 and 6-6 across, how are we going to go up against them. We played Pasadena in a non-league game and they beat us by 30 points, and they’re a division below us (5-A).”

The new system gives coaches the opportunity to move up to a higher enrollment division, but not a lower one for the playoffs. By last week’s filing deadline, 15 boys teams and five girls teams had decided to move to a higher division for the playoffs.

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Perennial power St. Bernard was one of the schools that decided for a higher division, moving from 3-A to 5-AA.

“St. Bernard has only 600 boys, so we should match up against teams of about the same size,” Coach Jim McClune said. “All things being equal, that’s how it should be, but all things aren’t equal. We just happen to have a good basketball team. We’ve made the CIF 5-A semifinals about four times in the last eight years, so we’ve been pretty successful at that level. So we’re comfortable with that for the playoffs.”

Klemm’s St. Monica team also opted to move up to 5-AA for the playoffs.

“We are going to play at the 5-AA level even though we are a small school because we feel we are competitive at that level,” he said. “We were already playing at the 5-AA level (5-A last year). For another team it might have been another thing.”

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Gillette said that for his team, under the new format, it wouldn’t make much difference what division he chose.

“I was thinking maybe it would be more beneficial to move up to the 5-AA because it looked (at first) like there were a few less good teams there,” he said. “But what difference is it going to make? At any level, I can’t see us or any schools like us going very far under this format.”

Wetmore said he thinks schools should have the option of moving down for the playoffs.

“If a team can move up, a team should be able to move down, too,” he said. “It should be a two-way street.”

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Some coaches also think that allowing schools with .500 records or better to make the playoffs as at-large teams will encourage schools in tougher leagues to play easier non-league schedules.

But Klemm doesn’t think that would be beneficial. “Our philosophy is always to schedule the best opponents,” he said. “When you don’t do that, you’re going against yourself. A person can schedule that way, but I think you suffer for it.”

Crowley said the new format will stay in effect for at least the next two seasons, although he said that it is not permanent by any means.

“I don’t know about staying this way, but this is not etched in stone,” Crowley said. “We will go with playoffs by enrollment this year and next year. We will poll the schools in January or February of next year about whether they want to stay in this format. If a large majority says stay with it we’ll keep it, and if not we can try another option.

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“Playoff groupings are on a two-year cycle, so this is the way it will be the next two years.”

Gillette, for one, is hoping that the new format doesn’t last any longer than that.

“This is the way it’s going to be this particular year, but I would have to imagine that if there’s enough noise something could be done,” he said.

But for the moment, like it or not, it is something that he will have to live with.

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