Opinion: The New Playoff Format Has Spoken and Delivered Central-Memorial Matchup for the Ages

Central quarterback Dayton Tafoya unloads a pass amid the pass rush against Clovis High on October 1, 2021. (Photo by Stan Miyake)

When Tri-River Athletic Conference power Central High travels to San Joaquin Memorial on Friday, there will be more at stake than a spot in the Central Section championship game.

Pride, bragging rights, and dynasties are on the line in a game that fans have waited five years to see.

In one corner of the ring, there are the three-time defending Division-I champion Central Grizzlies, a factory of future college football athletes with a propensity to score 30 points in a blink of an eye.

In the other corner, there is the three-time defending Section champion in Division-III and Division-II, the San Joaquin Memorial Panthers, a program that churns out college football players at its own impressive rate and makes the best case of any small school to compete with the big boys.

Population-wise, this matchup looks like David vs. Goliath. San Joaquin Memorial has an enrollment of 505 students; the Central High East campus alone has 4,168. That type of difference raises questions like, “Why is this game being played?” or “How is this fair?”.

Those were the same outcries offered when the playoff brackets were released two weeks ago.

The complaints flooded social media as soon as the first bracket was tweeted out. They ranged from how small schools should not play in higher divisions to why big schools should not play in lower divisions. The new playoff format, which eliminated the traditional division structure by basing seeding on a team’s performance in the season, was criticized and lambasted from the start.

The ironic thing is that the most important Central Section football playoff game of the past five seasons is now made possible because of the format.

When San Joaquin Memorial and Central clash on Friday night, there will be a combined 103 wins, six Central Section championships, two regional championships, and one state championship over the past five seasons on the field.

Accolades, awards, and achievements only tell half the story. There is a rivalry between these two schools, which is almost humorous because they have not played each other in almost 20 years.

But the rivalry is real and quite simple; when there are two teams who claim at season’s end to be the best team in the Central Section, well, there will be an argument about that.

No better way to settle an argument than 48 minutes on the gridiron.

Every high school football fan who is excited about this matchup should turn around and thank the computer ranking-based playoff format for it. In fact, the new system was made for a team like San Joaquin Memorial that does not belong in a Division-II.

When the new playoff format was announced, we knew going in that San Joaquin Memorial had a strong team and good shot at making the Division-I bracket for the first time in school history. The Panthers prepared for it by scheduling a scrimmage against now-No. 1 seed Buchanan in August.

They have looked the part of a Division-I team too. The Panthers have a perfect 9-0 record so far and won eight games by 20 or more points. No way that San Joaquin Memorial should play anything below Division-I football with the talent they have.

Not all situations are the same, and playoff seeding has not been kind to a few small schools. Central, which landed the No. 3 seed with a 7-1 regular-season record, defeated traditional Division-II school Hanford 62-12 in the quarterfinal round of the D-I playoffs.

Results like that bring the playoff format into question, and there may be some tweaks in the near future, but it is hard to argue with what it delivered this Friday.

The system has placed San Joaquin Memorial in Division-I, where coaches and fans wanted to see them compete at, against the mighty Central Grizzlies, the team that coaches and fans most wanted to see the Panthers play.

Hate the new format if you want, but it gave us what we all wanted. Small school vs. big school. Champion vs. champion, mano a mano.

Two Central Section football heavyweights enter the ring. By the time the bout is over, one will have its dynasty ended and the other will move to the doorstep of a championship.

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.