Column: Don’t disparage Clovis for Division-III boys’ basketball placement

Clovis High senior Diego Celaya looks for an open teammate during the Cougars’ 63-55 win at McLane in the Central Section D-III boys’ basketball playoffs on Tuesday, February 15, 2022 (Photo Gabe Camarillo Clovis, Roundup)

Jonathan Heinz heard the noise as he walked into the McLane High School gym Tuesday evening. 

Of course, there was noise coming from the raucous student section on hand to support the No. 2 seed Highlanders in the first round of Central Section Division-III boys’ basketball playoffs.

But there was also noise coming from outside the gym, from the court of public opinion, which questioned how Clovis High School wound up the No. 15 seed in D-III, far from its usual spot in Division-I.

Don’t ask Heinz, the fourth-year head coach of the Clovis Cougars. The new method of playoff placement that seeds teams based off MaxPreps computer rankings brought them here. 

MaxPreps deemed Clovis a Division-III team, one below its base division, and Heinz had no way of reasoning with a computer algorithm. 

“Honestly, if you ask me, I have no problem going to Division-I and getting beat or competing,” Heinz said. “It makes no difference if they put us in Division-II. We beat multiple teams in that Division-II bracket, so where the computer put us is where the computer put us. All our guys could do is play the game that’s in front of them, and they understood that.”

The other alternative was to pull out from playoffs, but as Heinz argued, would that be fair to the players who just fought through the most competitive league in the Central Section, the Tri-River Athletic Conference?

The Cougars faced five of the top 15 boys’ basketball teams in the Section over a 10-game stretch. Was Clovis supposed to be punished for going winless against that gauntlet? 

Heinz and the Cougars made the best of a situation outside their control, upsetting No. 2 McLane on Tuesday, 63-55. The Highlanders were ahead early, but Clovis took the lead late in the second quarter and never gave it back. 

The closest McLane got in the fourth quarter was a three-point deficit, 47-44, but Clovis responded with a 9-0 run and took an insurmountable double digit lead.

The No. 15 seed Cougars will travel to No. 7 Atascadero for the quarterfinal Thursday. Other quarterfinal matchups in the Division-III bracket are: No. 8 Selma at No. 1 Golden Valley, No. 13 El Diamante at No. 5 Sierra Pacific, and No. 14 Roosevelt at No. 6 South.

The sight of Clovis High School in D-III playoffs will raise a few eyebrows. Yet it’s the reality of the new playoff system, a format that aims to make playoffs more competitive and equitable.

Clovis entered the playoffs with an 8-21 overall record and 0-10 in TRAC play. This is not news to anyone who has followed Clovis High basketball for the last decade; the program hasn’t won more than two TRAC games in a season since 2011.

Wins and losses are a big part of Clovis’ story. If the Cougars go on to win it all, a Central Section champion with a losing record will undoubtedly draw the ire of the crowd, especially such a champion that originates from the athletically proud Clovis Unified School District.

But losses are the byproduct of the long rebuilding process that Clovis finds itself in. It’s almost unfair to compare the Cougars with their peers in the TRAC, because as evidenced by the on-court results, there is a large gap to close.

How a successful season is measured by most fans is wins and losses. But Heinz said despite the 21 losses to Clovis’ name, his definition of success is the growth that will come under the new playoff format.

“I’m thrilled that they got the opportunity to do this, because I think this is huge for our lower level guys, our underage freshmen and sophomores,” Heinz said. “We have two freshmen out there, three sophomores, and six juniors, and they all get to contribute in an environment like this. And if we play in D-I or D-II, maybe we don’t get the same type of opportunity.”

Clovis is making the most with what it was given. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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.