Coaches, Athletic Directors Express Mixed Response to New Playoff Format

Clovis East head football coach Ryan Reynolds directs a player during practice. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)

Clovis East head football coach Ryan Reynolds is trying to rebuild a program that won two Central Section Division-I championships during its heyday in the 2000s. Luckily for the Timberwolves, he has experience doing so at a previous coaching stop.

An assistant coach under then-head coach Tim Murphy at Clovis East, Reynolds followed Murphy to Clayton Valley Charter in Concord, CA. He was part of a coaching staff that resuscitated the Ugly Eagles and won multiple Division-II North Coast Section championships. Yet Reynolds knew the rebuilding effort was aided by the fact that Clayton Valley played in D-II instead of D-I, where nearby De La Salle dominated.

“We were able to be in a Division-II, have some success, win some championships, and keep the snowball rolling,” Reynolds said. “If we were in Division-I, we would’ve never won a championship and never would’ve snowballed.”

This season, a new Central Section playoff format will be implemented that seeds teams based on season-by-season performance, and no longer by school population or “competitive equity.”

Clovis Unified School District can no longer keep all its athletic programs competing at the Division-I level, where Clovis East has been non-competitive for a decade.

Eight teams will make the Division-I football bracket, with 16 teams filling out each of the divisions after that. Reynolds believes this is the boost Clovis East needs to climb back to the mountaintop.

“For schools like [Clovis East] who are rebuilding, it’s really great for us,” Reynolds said. “It allows us to have a lot more success in the playoffs, and hopefully, eventually, win Division-I championships.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Clovis North football head coach Michael Jacot. The Broncos are rebuilding too after going winless and suffering from COVID-19 issues in the spring football season. Jacot said he wants to reward his players with a title shot after playing through a tough Tri-River Athletic Conference.

Now that Clovis North won’t be forced into D-I playoffs, there’s an opportunity to do that.

Yet the increased optimism among the TRAC coaches is opposite among coaches and administrators of traditionally lower-division schools. Jon Penberthy is the athletic director of Fresno Christian Schools, a school of approximately 200 students. The Eagles won the 2020 Central Section Division-V basketball championship but under the new playoff format, they could have been moved up a division and lost its chance at a championship.

That is the biggest complaint made by coaches, parents, and administrators of traditionally lower-division schools.

“It’s going to come back to bite small schools, big time,” Penberthy said. “We’re going to see some of these small school programs that have done fairly well at the D-IV or D-V level and have been able to compete against some bigger schools in individual games, but when it comes to playoff time… they are going to be put into the Open [Division].”

There’s another scenario that Penberthy finds equally harmful to smaller schools.

“We’re going to have big schools that are having ‘down seasons’ to their standards, be a number one or two seed in Division-IV and Division-V and just trash small schools,” Penberthy said. “That’s the reason I’m completely against it.”

Penberthy personally stands against the new playoff format. He represented the league of private schools at last October’s Board of Managers meeting, but since most private schools were in favor of it, he voted for the playoff proposal. It passed with a 27- 17 vote margin.

Providing the perspective of a large school athletic director, Clovis North AD Coby Lindsey said that, despite large schools having a few programs that excel in Division-I, “not every program is at the same level.”

“Why should a struggling program be penalized and placed in the highest division, because all of the school’s other sports are doing so well?” Lindsey said.

“The whole purpose [of playoffs] isn’t to put you in a place where you’re going to win the whole thing. The purpose is that you’re supposed to be surrounded by teams that have the same competitiveness that you have.”

The debate and differing opinions will continue into the high school sports season and likely flare up when playoff seedings come out. But Central Section commissioner Ryan Tos expected there to be a discussion regarding an imperfect solution.

“If there was the perfect system, I wouldn’t be working here,” Tos said. “I’d be traveling the country sharing it with every other state association, because everyone’s trying to figure this stuff out.”

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.