New Valley playoff format gets mixed reactions

As playoffs begin next week for some sports, CIF Central Section will use a new ranking system when placing teams in divisions

CENTRAL VALLEY – As teams around the Central Valley near the end of the 2021 regular season for fall sports, it’s safe to say that this year has already been far from the norm. As if a global pandemic and poor air quality weren’t enough of a wild card factor, teams are also adjusting to a new ranking system for the Valley playoffs.

Last October, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Central Section Board of Managers voted in favor of a new bylaw which will conduct division placement at the end of every season, opposed to the previous model of doing placements every two years.

Beginning this year the section office will place fall sports such as football, volleyball, water polo and tennis, into a division based upon their current year’s computer rankings on sites such as MaxPreps and CalPreps. Other affected sports include basketball, soccer, baseball and softball.

Michael Iriye continues making his case for EYL MVP after three touchdowns against Tulare Western. Photo by Jermaine Johnson II

For fall sports, projected rankings can be found at Computer rankings are determined by a team’s performance in the current season, taking into account wins, losses and strength of schedule which is the record/performance of opposing teams they’ve played. According to Central Section Commissioner Ryan Tos, there’s minimal human element to the rankings. If there’s two teams ranked next to each other with a head to head matchup or common opponent, then they may make a minor tweak to flip those teams based on the results of those matchups. When the brackets come out, they’ll also look at travel considerations for the lower half of the bracket. So if it’s possible to get two teams in the same area to play each other instead of having to drive several hours then they’ll make those kinds of considerations for first round matchups.

For football, soccer, baseball, softball, tennis and volleyball, the top eight ranked teams will be in Division I. The next 16 teams will go into Division II, with the next 16 going into Division III and so on until Division VI. For water polo the top eight teams will go into Division I, next eight will go into Division II, and the next 16 will be in Division III. Basketball will be similar to water polo except it will go down to Division V and will also have an open division of four teams.

In terms of voting on bylaws, every league in the Central Section has two voting representatives. There’s also representatives for the school superintendents, school boards, a private school representative, and elected officers such as the president, past president, and president-elect. The item passed with a 27-17 vote.

Mixed reactions

According to Tos, schools were in favor of the new bylaw because a team is judged on their current year’s performance and not by what they did in previous years. The new bylaw also helps account for school’s that have a new transfer student that is making an immediate impact, or school’s that graduate a strong senior class and may not have the same caliber of players in subsequent years.

“I think the reason that a lot of people voted on it is because it doesn’t take into effect what you did two to four years ago,” Tos said.

He referenced the Exeter volleyball team as an example. Between 2016 and 2018 they made it the Division II Valley Championship game three years in a row, winning the last two. Consequently they were moved up to Division I in the 2019 season but a majority of those Valley Champion athletes had graduated, leaving the team with an almost completely new roster in a much more competitive division. They made it to the playoffs and swept Central High School in the opening round before being swept by Liberty in the quarterfinals.

“I only had four or five athletes [return] that were part of the 2018 team that played in Division II, but then they were having us play in Division I,” Exeter volleyball head coach Sam Hilvers said. “I didn’t like that aspect of the old system. So I do like that this year it’s based on your current [performance], what is the current team capable of doing.”

Hilvers added that she’s worried about teams who have a good record against lower ranked teams being placed in a higher division against much harder competition than they’re used to. Mission Oak head football coach Michael Machado echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t think it’s a favorite of a lot of coaches. Because it feels like when you play well as a smaller school, it leans toward a little bit of a punishment. And when you play badly as a big school, perennial Division I or II schools, you move down,” Machado said.

He added that for the sake of growing small school programs, the previous system that was in place would likely be more beneficial for everyone. Mission Oak, a school with about 1,500 students, and Strathmore, a student body of less than 800 students, are both in Division III as of last week’s rankings with the programs such as Redwood who are normally Division II. New rankings were released yesterday after press time. Mission Oak was last in Division III in 2017 and dropped a division in each of the following two seasons, most recently playing in Division V. Strathmore has made one of the biggest jumps as they spent the last few seasons hovering between Division V and Division VI.

Either way it goes, Tos deems there to be no perfect way to rank teams as it is an issue that other sections in the state are also working to solve.

“Every state is trying to figure this out too, and every section in California is trying to figure it out,” Tos said. “There’s no perfect way. In the previous system people didn’t like their divisional placement and in some cases in this system some people will not like their divisional placement here as well.”

The goal for the new system is to have more competitive games in playoffs and until those games are played, the success of the format is unknown. Tos also adds that this season may not be the best barometer to judge the format as COVID-19 has been a major wildcard, forcing teams to cancel games and not get a full 10-game schedule to accurately determine their ranking.

“We’ll continue to look at every aspect of what we can, and try to make it a little bit better each time we go around. From my perspective, I want to see how it goes, let it breathe a little bit and not just completely abandon ship after one season of sports,” Tos said.

Since the new system is a bylaw, there will be no official changes until a proposal is brought to the board and is passed after a majority vote.

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