The best basketball team in the Central Section didn’t get to play in the biggest game.
Instead, Immanuel High was relegated to a noon matinee — eight hours before Bullard and Edison met for the Division I boys title at Selland Arena.
Now, can I say with 100% certainty the Division IV champion Eagles are a better squad than both D-I finalists?
Well, no. But after watching all three teams play Saturday, I’m definitely leaning that way. (Heck, put D-III champ Porterville in the conversation, too.)
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Plus there’s this: Immanuel squashed Edison 77-61 in January, on a neutral court, after leading by 25 at halftime.
And this: Bullard and Edison split two regular-season games with seven points representing the largest margin of victory.
So while I can’t say for certain Immanuel is the superior squad, I have my suspicions.
One that is shared by Central Section Commissioner Jim Critchlow, who told me, “(The Eagles) are probably the best team in the section.”
Yet Immanuel gets zero chance to prove it.
Six years after the Central Section implemented a system that separates schools and teams into divisions on the basis of achievement rather than enrollment, the results remain somewhat cloudy.
I understand the thinking. If divisions were based solely on enrollment, the same private schools would dominate the lower divisions year after year. At the same time, large schools without long-standing traditions or feeder programs would seldom, if ever, reach a section final.
In other respects, the whole thing seems kind of forced and manipulated.
For as great as it must have been for Caruthers fans to experience Friday’s Division V boys and girls championships, surely there is a realization none of this would be happening if the Blue Raiders weren’t dropped from Division IV.
Same goes for last year’s Division III boys final between Fresno and Roosevelt. Wonderful story. Now achieve it at Division I, where schools of 2,330 and 2,143 students, respectively, probably belong.
That brings us back to Immanuel, a private school in Reedley with an enrollment of 224. After winning the Division V section title last year by 30 points over Kern Valley, the Eagles were bumped to Division IV.
Which wasn’t nearly high enough. Bolstered by several transfers (some might say “recruits”), including junior point guard Colin Slater, who boasts nearly a dozen college scholarship offers including one from Fresno State, Immanuel trampled every section opponent in sight.
The Eagles had no business in Division IV — just look at their playoff scores. Immanuel won 76-30, 97-48 and 76-38 before pounding Granite Hills 70-50 in the final. The only suspense was whether the fourth quarter would be played with a running clock.
Afterward, I asked Eagles coach C.J. Haydock if his team could have competed in the Division I bracket.
“Absolutely,” Haydock replied. “I would have no problem playing Division I this year. But I know Colin Slater is going to graduate. I know (sophomore) Darrin Person Jr. is going to graduate. So maintaining this level of achievement in future years is going to be a pretty hefty task.”
The Central Section doesn’t just arbitrarily move teams up and down divisions. There is a set of criteria that includes section titles and playoff appearances, and that criteria has been amended plenty.
So the system is flexible, though perhaps not flexible enough. If the section wants to ensure competitive balance, why not let schools switch divisions every year? (Instead of three, like it is currently.)
Critchlow said he wouldn’t mind: “I’d love to do it on an annual basis, though that would mean really tracking each team’s roster. It would be a lot of work, but we’d be willing to do it.”
Haydock would like to see the Central Section adopt an open division for the best teams regardless of school size. (Some of the state’s biggest sections already do this.)
But there are problems with that, too. Starting next year throughout California, teams that compete in open divisions at the section level will be mandated do so at state as well.
So while the Eagles would have loved to play in an open division at Selland, I’m guessing they’re perfectly content being in Division IV during the Southern California Regional — where they will encounter teams just as loaded as them.
None of this, of course, detracts from the experience at Selland. Only the city of Fresno’s participation does that.
One would think 11 years would be enough time for figure out that more than two parking attendants and ticket-takers are required for an event of this size. Unless, of course, city officials don’t care if fans have to wait 10 minutes to enter the parking lot and another 15 to get into the arena. Long as they get your money.
And I’d love to meet the bureaucrat who came up with the idea to charge media for parking. (Never seen it in 23 years of covering sports at the pro, college and high school levels.)
But we won’t let that blemish mar our enjoyment.
From event coordinators Bob Kayajanian and Brent Smithers to people like Belia Lopez, who schedules and supervises more than 100 volunteers, the Fresno County Office of Education and Central Section continue to put on a first-class showcase for high school sports.
“(Friday) I spoke with a parent from Caruthers who told me, ‘I’ve never been here before. I can’t believe how big a deal it is,’ ” Lopez said while cleaning crumbs from a tablecloth in the hospitality room. “Well, it gets better every year.”
No argument here, though I sure would have liked to have seen tiny Immanuel take aim at the big boys.