No dream pairing in new state bowls

Times Staff Writer

California is 11 days away from holding its inaugural version of state championships in high school football, but the game everybody wants to see -- unbeaten Westlake Village Oaks Christian against unbeaten Concord De La Salle -- won't happen.

And it can't happen, because the teams play in different divisions based on their enrollments. Oaks Christian, with 582 students, is in Division III, and De La Salle, with 2,010 students, is in Division I.

No one is saying it's perfect or even comparable to the state playoffs of football-crazed Texas, but ready or not, the California Interscholastic Federation is proceeding with its two-year experiment.

On Sunday, commissioners from 10 sections of the CIF, the state's governing body for high school sports, will select three teams from Southern California and three teams from Northern California to play each other in a tripleheader on Dec. 16 at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

Marketed as the inaugural "CIF State Football Championship Bowl Games," the three games will feature teams representing three school enrollment sizes:

* Division I -- Schools with 2,401 students or more in Southern California and 1,751 or more in Northern California.

* Division II -- Schools with 1,101 to 2,400 students in Southern California and between 1,001 and 1,750 in Northern California.

* Division III -- Schools with enrollments of 1,100 or fewer in Southern California and 1,000 or fewer in Northern California.

All the games, scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., will be televised live on FSN Prime Ticket.

Since there are no statewide playoffs leading to these bowl games and teams aren't matched based on talent, regardless of enrollment, many insist the so-called championship games won't produce a true state champion.

But Barbara Fiege, City Section commissioner, said, "It's like the BCS.... It's as close as we can get to a playoff series."

In Texas, all postseason games are geared toward determining 12 divisional state champions. To win a state title, the Division 5-A champion -- comparable to Division I in California -- has to win six playoff games and will have played 16 total games, with the last one coming on Dec. 23.

In California, postseason games determine section champions, and only section champions will be eligible to be considered for the CIF bowl games.

In the spring of 2005, the CIF won approval from its sections to hold the bowl games on an experimental basis for two years, despite objections from the Southern Section, the largest section in the state, which voted against the plan.

Southern Section schools didn't like the fact most of the revenue generated from the games would go to a state fund for coaching education programs rather than the schools participating in the bowl games. And many of its coaches didn't care for the format.

"To me, it's not No. 1 versus No. 2, it's North versus South," said Raul Lara, coach of Long Beach Poly. "It's really not a state championship. That's why I'm a little hesitant."

The Southern Section reconfigured its playoff divisions this season based more on competitive equity than enrollment. It loaded up the Pac-5 Division with so many top teams that it's going to prevent all but the division's winner from being considered for a bowl game.

"That may be true," said Rob Wigod, an assistant commissioner for the section, "but our council has expressed the desire we group our playoffs with competitive equity, enrollment and geography as the three criteria versus the state model of just enrollment."

There is no simple choice in selecting the Division I representative from Southern California after Long Beach Poly was beaten in last week's Pac-5 semifinals. Canyon Country Canyon (10-2) has emerged as No. 1 in the ratings going into its Northern Division final against Moorpark, but Riverside North is on the verge of a 14-0 season and Clovis East (12-1) won the Central Section title.

Jim Staunton, the Southern Section commissioner, must decide which of the teams to support for the Division I spot, and it won't be easy because there have been no head-to-head matchups.

"Any school that's worked this hard and gone this far would want to go to the state championships," he said. "All we can do is make the best decision we can. We clearly want the strongest team."

Division II has become very clear. The winner of the Pac-5 Division final between Orange Lutheran (12-1) and Huntington Beach Edison (11-2) should get the berth based on the strength of their opponents.

In Division III, Oaks Christian (13-0), led by All-American quarterback Jimmy Clausen, appears a lock to represent Southern California if it wins the Northwest Division title, which it can do Friday night with another victory over league rival Oak Park.

As for Northern California's representatives, De La Salle (12-0), Palo Alto (11-1) and Santa Rosa Cardinal Newman (11-1) top the rankings in Divisions I, II and III going into the final weekend of games.

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