The greatest high school athletic achievements in the nation can be found in California championships in two sports – wrestling and track and field.
They have but one gold medalist per weight class (wrestling) and event (track, other than relays).
There aren’t five 170-pound champions in five divisions because there are no divisions.
There aren’t five 100-meter champions in five divisions because there are no divisions.
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Rather, there is one massive pot of elite competition in each sport, the cream of the largest state in the land (1,535 schools).
Now to football.
There will be 13 bowl winners crowned this weekend to close the first year of unprecedented state postseason expansion. And is there a fair analogy to be drawn with wrestling and track?
Why? Because, essentially, this is also about separating teams by weight class, separating them by skill and event.
Consider the Central Section entrants bracing for 6 p.m. title games Saturday following wins in last week’s regionals:
▪ Hanford, at home, will play Bonita Vista-Chula Vista in Division IV-AA as opposed to facing the college program disguised as a prep, De La Salle-Concord, which has owned the state bowl Open Division.
▪ Chowchilla, at home, will play Sierra-Manteca in Division IV-A, not Centennial-Corona, top-ranked in the nation by MaxPreps.
▪ Immanuel will play at Mater Dei Catholic-Chula Vista in Division V-AA, not Mission Viejo, a perennial state power from Orange County.
It’s about opportunity against opponents deemed like in ability – they call it “competitive equity” in CIF government parlance – and here’s what distinguishes the process: Win and you’re a champion in the state of California, albeit one of 13.
Lose and, at the very least, you already have uplifted the holiday spirits of school and community while having been given a shot on a very bright stage.
Either way, what’s diminishing about that?
Critics say the process has become diluted, having almost tripled the size of the winner’s circle. It used to hold five.
Critics should consider Texas, the national hotbed of prep fooball, right?
Similarly sized Texas merely crowns 20 state champs – 14 in traditional 11-man football and six in six-man. Further, the Lone Star State separates public school finals from private.
What we’re doing is pretty comparable to Texas, and I don’t think it’s diluted at all. Whatever way they decided to do this, there was going to be a group of people saying it’s not the right way. But given the circumstances and the way the state is made up, this is the right way to do it.
Hanford coach Josh Young
“What we’re doing is pretty comparable to Texas, and I don’t think it’s diluted at all,” Hanford coach Josh Young says. “Whatever way they decided to do this, there was going to be a group of people saying it’s not the right way. But given the circumstances and the way the state is made up, this is the right way to do it. There’s a lot of schools in our state.”
To those troubled with the value of the California format, I offer a hypothetical example involving Immanuel’s Cody King, the Central Section’s leading tackler.
Say the 11-2 Eagles pass a daunting test Saturday and prevail against 12-3 Mater Dei Catholic – a private-school colleague, yet one nearly three times their size (723 students) – in the V-AA championship near the Mexican border.
And say King returns to the Immanuel gym in 20 years, then married and with children, looks up at the wall and absorbs a 2015 state football banner.
Do you honestly think he will turn to family and say: “Nice, but cheap because there were too many divisions”?
King, actually, this week says he’d expect to share in two decades: “What a lifetime memory, what a good time.”
This isn’t about too many divisions; it’s about making memories.
Immanuel linebacker Cody King
He adds before a practice this week: “This isn’t about too many divisions; it’s about making memories.”
For Immanuel, it’s about having a chance at state gold while hailing from a school of 275 students.
“If there are five divisions, we don’t have this opportunity,” says Immanuel coach Matt Armstrong. “Some say it’s watered down, and I’m not all about everybody getting a trophy, either. But, with a school like us, with 275 kids, I feel we’re placed where we should be. And, by the Lord’s grace, we’re pretty fortunate to be in this situation.”
Pointing south to the Crusaders of Mater Dei Catholic and the San Diego Section, he adds: “They’re the best team I’ve seen in four years at Immanuel. They have talent all over the place and one of the best tailbacks (CJ Verdell) in the state of California. I feel we’re peaking at the right time, but it’s going to take a near-perfect game to come out victorious.”
The Bonita Vista-Hanford duel presents particular intrigue, a sudden leap onto the state stage for programs with modest history until recently.
Hanford has won consecutive section titles after winning none, and this is a school that played its first football game in 1899, according to section historian Bob Barnett.
Bonita Vista this season captured its first section championship in its 49-year history.
“Now here we continue to go on this great march,” Barons coach Chris Thompson says. “Twenty years from now, should we win, they’ll be talking here about being a state champion, not about what level. Regardless of the outcome, we’ve won. There’s a lot of good football in California.”