New Open Division aims to limit CCS championships won by WCAL schools 

Michael Smith and El Camino have a solid team this season, but will be forced to run the gauntlet known as the Open Division under a new CCS playoff format. - CHRISTIAN CHEW/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Christian Chew/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Michael Smith and El Camino have a solid team this season, but will be forced to run the gauntlet known as the Open Division under a new CCS playoff format.

With one not-so-simple decision in May, the Central Coast Section completely changed the landscape of its playoffs and the changes have a clear objective — limiting the amount of championships the West Catholic Athletic League can win.

Based on a proposal by the section’s Basketball Advisory Committee, which is composed of coaches, this year will be the first season the CCS will employ an Open Division playoff system in both boys’ and girls’ basketball, and the tournament begins Friday night.

The boys’ tournament, in order of seed, will feature Mitty, Serra, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Riordan, Palo Alto, Piedmont Hills, El Camino and Soquel. The girls’ tournament, again in order of seed, will feature Sacred Heart Cathedral, Mitty, St. Ignatius, Eastside Prep, St. Francis, Wilcox, Pinewood and Lynbrook.

The idea is to get the eight best teams in the section into one tournament (with limitations on how many schools from individual leagues and enrollment divisions can participate), the same way the section’s football playoffs have been handled since 2004. The idea’s philosophical roots, however, stem from the WCAL’s domination in the CCS tournaments in recent years and speaks to a growing divide between public- and private-school factions in the section.

“The No. 1 thing was how many private schools were winning championships. The public-school leagues want to win more championships,” said Bellarmine boys’ basketball coach Patrick Schneider, who is also the WCAL representative in the Basketball Advisory Committee.

The public schools’ frustrations are clearly illustrated by staggering data.

CCS public schools represent 64.3 percent of the section’s members (the section lists 90 public schools and 50 private schools on its website), but have won just 12.3 percent of the section championships in boys’ basketball and 21.5 percent in girls’ basketball since 2000 (across all five enrollment divisions). The data is skewed by the small-school Division V group for both boys and girls, which is almost entirely composed of private schools, but also by the schools in girls’ Division I, which does not have a single private school.

The divisions that the two factions intermingle, however, are still dominated by the private schools, specifically the 10 WCAL members.

In the Division I boys’ tournament, WCAL members Bellarmine and Serra have won 10 of the past 14 championships. In boys’ Division II, Mitty, St. Francis and Serra have won 10 of the past 13 championships. In girls’ Division II, Mitty has won seven of the past nine titles, with fellow WCAL member Presentation winning another during that streak and public-school rep Wilcox claiming another. In boys’ Division III, Sacred Heart Cathedral, Riordan, St. Ignatius and Mitty have claimed 12 of the last 13 CCS titles.

Above all, the Division III girls’ champions has had the greatest disparity. Although the WCAL only began playing girls’ basketball in the 2002-2003 season (its current teams played in different girls’ leagues), its current league members have won the past 19 Division III CCS titles.

Simply put, the current WCAL contingent represents just over 7 percent of the CCS member schools, but has won 52.3 percent of the section’s championships in boys’ basketball and 46.1 percent of the girls’ titles since 2000. If the Division I girls’ tournament and both Division V tournaments are removed, because the WCAL does not have a representative in those divisions, the league has won 65.4 percent of boys’ CCS championships and 66.6 percent of girls’ titles.

Small-school dynasties at Eastside Prep and Pinewood, which have combined to win the last 10 Division V girls’ titles and eight of the last 13 boys’ titles, also played a part of the new Open setup, but CCS coaches have largely stated the objective of the new division is to limit the WCAL schools in the enrollment-division championships.

“The [CCS] Basketball Advisory Committee recommended the change to get the stronger WCAL teams and private schools out of the divisional brackets,” said Half Moon Bay boys’ basketball coach Rich Forslund, whose team has the No. 4 seed in the Division IV tournament. “It’s going to change the landscape so that the public schools will have a far greater chance to win a championship — to hang a banner that they wouldn’t have been able to before.”

Forslund is also the former coach at Riordan, a WCAL school with deep basketball tradition, and makes a very logical case for leveling the playing field with the Open Division.

“Half Moon Bay is a perfect example,” Forslund said. “There are two schools that feed into Half Moon Bay, one public and one private. In [St. Ignatius’] case, they might have 50 schools feeding into it. No offense, but do you think you’ll find more athletes that way?”

Only four members of any league (in both cases this season, the WCAL) and three from any enrollment division can make up the eight-team Open Division tournament and the benefit of being selected to the elite group is an automatic bid to the ensuing NorCal tournament.

But if the objective is to limit the WCAL’s championships and to offer the public schools a better opportunity to win a CCS enrollment-division title, it has failed El Camino.

The El Camino boys’ basketball program has never won a CCS title, but had a breakout season in 2011-12. The Colts fell to Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Division III CCS championship game last season. It was the fourth straight CCS title for the Irish and El Camino’s first appearance in a section championship game in school history.

Now, with a two-year track record of relative success, the Colts are playing the part of the sacrificial lamb being offered up to the WCAL powers. Sure, El Camino has a puncher’s chance to take down No. 2 seed Serra, but the more likely result is that the Open Division basketball tournament will play out much like the Open Division football tournament in recent years.

Since 2008, when WCAL teams play non-WCAL teams in the CCS Open Division football tournament, the WCAL teams have a 17-5 record.

El Camino now takes the place of Terra Nova, the Peninsula Athletic League team that has been pushed into the Open Division football tournament in the past two seasons, only to get throttled by Bellarmine in the first round both times.

“My initial reaction was that nothing has changed for us,” said El Camino boys’ basketball coach Archie Junio. “A lot of this was to get the WCAL out of the [enrollment] divisions, but now we still have to go through the WCAL teams. ... The moment we have an opportunity to win an [enrollment] division, we’re bumped up. It’s a slap in the face, but it’s also a respect thing. At least they’re considering us strong enough to compete.”

To pile on even more, the Division II tournament (which would be El Camino’s enrollment division if it wasn’t in the Open) is severely weakened without Serra and three-time defending CCS champion Mitty (which has also won two straight Division II state championships). To top it all off, St. Francis, another WCAL school, is the No. 3 seed in Division II and could very well win the tournament.

WCAL schools Bellarmine and St. Ignatius are also top seeds in the boys’ Division I and Division III tournaments, respectively, and will be the favorites to win both. Presentation is similarly is the top seed in the Division II girls tournament despite a 10-15 record.

The CCS members and the section office largely acknowledge the Open Division and the overall setup of the CCS playoffs will likely be a work in progress and adjusted in following years, but most coaches and others involved are struck with conflicted feelings.

“It’s a hard sell to yourself and others,” said Riordan boys’ basketball coach Rich Buckner. “People are asking me all the time whether I would like to be in the Open Division and finish third or fourth, or win [an enrollment] division. That’s the dilemma, and you always want to be a champion, but in the honor of the Open Division, I’ll have an open mind.”

Most, like Buckner, are going to withhold judgement until the results of the respective tournaments play out.

“I don’t think we can get a real feel or taste for it until it’s all done,” said St. Ignatius girls’ basketball coach Michael Mulkerrins. “When it was first announced, I wasn’t in favor of it, but it certainly has some intriguing angles for the fans and for the players. I just don’t think you can evaluate it, judge it or criticize it until it’s all done.

Withheld judgment or not, there is a nightmare scenario in the CCS boys’ basketball tournaments.

If all of the four WCAL schools win in the first round of the Open Division playoffs, Bellarmine wins the Division I tournament, St. Francis wins in Division II, St. Ignatius wins in Division III, any number of private schools wins in Division IV (including Palma, with now-healthy UCLA commit Noah Allen) and in Division V, it will just be business as usual in the CCS.

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Jeremy Balan

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