The latest Central Section realignment — always a buzz in the region — is as much about those going back down a division via successful protests as those going up via achievement.
Section administration, for several years now without bias toward enrollment while instead framing postseason assignments around competitive equity, has kept its course while elevating three schools with varied student population to Division I in baseball this spring.
Memorial (enrollment 560), Tulare Western (1,750) and Madera (2,170) will depart D-II and join the likes of perennial Tri-River Athletic Conference and state powers Buchanan, Clovis, Clovis North and Clovis West in the section D-I playoffs this spring.
Additional movement, in a three-year cycle based on recent league and playoff performance and postseason seeding, will feature Hanford West bumping to D-I in softball, Redwood up in softball (D-II) and boys tennis (D-I), and Selma hitting the trifecta — climbing the ladder in baseball (D-III), softball (D-IV) and boys tennis (D-IV).
The section Board of Managers approved 72 changes in all — a perfect 36 split of those bumped up and down — pending appeals.
Demotions are generally met with glee, for they increase the chance of winning section titles in lesser divisions.
Promotions are rarely seen as flattering, because they routinely match overachievers with new postseason opposition that have significantly larger enrollment.
Further, successful appeals by schools to reverse those promotions — while allowed through a process judged on such criteria as reduced enrollment, coaching changes or players lost through graduation or transfers — have been rare.
Until now — at least after one season.
In addition to appeals allowed in a 15 school-day window following the initial realignment announcements, a section clause also allows challenges after the first season of the new cycle. And the section has honored 16 of 17 following this school year’s round of fall sports.
“We expanded the criteria,” section Commissioner Jim Crichlow says, “because we felt they were too tight previously and didn’t give fair opportunity; we were locked in.”
Only Mendota girls volleyball was denied by Crichlow, the “judge and jury” of the petition process. The Aztecs remain in D-IV.
Petitions approved, covering eight sports, included El Diamante (back to D-II), Porterville (D-III), Tehachapi (D-III), Washington (D-IV) and Orosi (VI) in football, effective next season.
“It’s where we belong,” says coach Mark Rogers of El Diamante, which has ping-ponged between D-I and D-II in the past six years. “We can beat those D-I teams on one night occasionally in the playoffs. But to win three or four in a row is very difficult.”
There are those who embrace climbing upward, regardless of numbers. One such team is Hanford West softball, a spring program that has burned a remarkably similar path as crosstown rival Hanford has blazed in girls basketball during the winter.
It was Hanford girls hoops — drawing from an enrollment generally of about 1,600 — that placed second in D-III in 2006 and 2007, and, with the section competitive equity model gathering steam, first in D-III in 2008, first in D-II in 2009 and 2010, and first in D-I in 2011 and 2012.
And the D-I basketball titles were delivered against Clovis, Fresno and Bakersfield schools numbering well over 2,000 students.
Hanford West’s softball team, likewise, has soared regardless of division placement.
The Huskies, with an enrollment of about 1,400, have won five D-III or D-II titles in six years, including the most emphatic of all — a 10-0 mercy rule drubbing of Memorial for the D-II crown this past May.
A day prior to that, Hanford West coach Jeff Harger — anticipating a D-I promotion— told The Bee: “Wherever they tell us we have to play, we’ll be there. And we’ll play. That’s fine, we’ll go there and try and compete. We want to play the best competition we can. I think it’s a good thing for the school and the program.”
Baseball offers some intriguing twists.
Madera, with an enrollment of 2,200, returns to D-I after spending most of its history there. The Coyotes, in D-II, made the section section semifinals in 2013 after winning it all in 2012.
Tulare Western joins the elite neighborhood after winning the D-II title last spring and making the semis in 2013. And the team the Mustangs beat a year ago, Memorial, ascends after consecutive D-II runner-up finishes.
Memorial coach Pete Dalena, also against the norm, does indeed accept the bump up as flattering and with anticipation. And so what that the Panthers might knock heads in the postseason with schools four times their size?
“To tell the truth, I’m excited,” he says. “I think it’s a compliment to all the players who have played here. I think we’ve earned it.
“That said, it will definitely be a challenge for a school our size. Our players need to understand that the program has earned the right to play at this level because of all the players who played before them.”