Central Section Moving to Year-to-Year Division Placement

The CIF Central Section is implementing a new playoff format for the 2021-22 high school sports season, one that eliminates the traditional division structure.

Under a new proposal approved by the section’s Board of Managers last October, divisional placement will be determined at the end of the season by computer power rankings. This method will be used for bracketed sports such as football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, water polo and badminton.

The top eight teams in each sport, as determined by its computer power ranking, will be placed in Division-I playoffs. The next 16 teams, or teams ranked nine to 24, will be placed in Division-II, and each following division will be filled with the next best 16 teams.

The new format is a departure from the “competitive equity” model that realigned divisions every two years based on a school’s playoff performance during that two-year span.

“I think that there will be some positives,” said Central Section commissioner Ryan Tos. “Some people really like it because it’s not based on what your program did two, three, four or five years ago.”

“I think people like that it’s going to be current year data, but I think the concerns… There actually will be a time where a school with a smaller enrollment or a school that’s traditionally been in Division-IV or Division-V might have a really strong team and be up in Division-II for a year. Of course, some people might not like that.”

There is no “ceiling” or “floor” to how far a team can rise or fall from its previous division. A traditional Division-I school can play in Division-II or Division-III playoffs. This will be a change for Clovis Unified School District, which has kept its athletic programs competing at only the D-I level in Central Section competition.

The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) already seeds state and regional playoffs based on a team’s yearly performance; for example, Buchanan girls’ soccer and girls’ basketball played at the D-I level in the section last season but competed in the D-II and D-3A regional playoffs, respectively.

Now, as Tos puts it, the Central Section is doing it “with a whole lot more teams and a whole lot more sports.”

And it won’t be the only section making a playoff change this fall — the CIF Southern Section is implementing the same format for football.

“I think the prevailing thought [in the Southern Section] that got it approved there, and it grew here as well, was that some people really struggle with the idea of basing our decisions off of past performance and students that are no longer even in schools, as opposed to how the team did this year,” Tos said.

Tos said he expects most sports to use MaxPreps for year-to-year rankings, due to coaches’ familiarity with the website. However, he noted that each sport’s advisory committee will choose which computer rankings it uses to determine division placement.

For example, Calpreps.com will be used for football rankings, according to chair of the football advisory committee Jesse Hardwick.

“[Coaches] will update it weekly, basically once the results go,” Hardwick said. “I think CalPreps updates a little quicker than MaxPreps. That’s why a lot of our coaches like CalPreps… you could probably look on a Monday morning and say, ‘Wow, here’s the ranking system.’”

Strength of schedule, win-loss record and head-to-head schedule will factor into the rankings. Head-to-head results will also be used if two teams are close in rankings; for example, if Team A is ahead of Team B by two points, but lost to Team B, then Team B will be moved ahead of Team A.

If this format was used for the 2019 football season, based on the Calpreps.com rankings, San Joaquin Memorial and Bakersfield Christian, the D-II and D-III champions of that season, would have been placed in the D-I bracket.

“I was thinking back to Fresno State football,” Tos said. “Every once in a while, they have that really good team and you hope they have the chance to play in a Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl… I think it could give some schools the opportunity to do that in those years.”

“Overall, it means schools will be in a division where they should be very competitive, simply because in Division-III football, everyone is going to be within eight to 10 rankings points of each other.”

Basketball, according to Tos, will keep the four-team Open Division, followed by an eight-team Division-I and 16-team divisions after that.

Cross country, track and field, wrestling and golf will keep their current playoff format. According to Clovis West athletic director Matt Loggins, swimming and diving started a new format this season that combines the top 25 boys’ and girls’ teams between the D-I and D-II section meets, qualifying them for the following year’s D-I meet.

The year-to-year division placement proposal was initially brought up during the 2019-20 school year, before Tos assumed the commissioner position on July 1, 2020. It passed on a 27-17 vote at Tos’ first Board of Managers meeting.

“That vote was a lot closer than normal,” said Fresno Christian athletic director Jon Penberthy.

The leagues who voted in favor of the proposal included: Central Sequoia League, County Metro Athletic Conference, Hi-Lo League, North Yosemite League, South Yosemite, Southeast Yosemite, Southwest Yosemite, West Yosemite, and the Tri-River Athletic Conference.

The leagues who voted against it consisted mostly of traditional lower-division schools: East Sequoia League, East Yosemite League, High Desert League, South Sequoia League, West Sequoia and West Sierra.

“I hope we give it a year or two to see how it works,” Tos said. “I think a lot of times, we jump to conclusions right away with a very limited sample size, so hopefully we give it a little bit of a chance to see how it works or doesn’t work.”

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.