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Weekly Prep Sports Polls: The Controversy Starts Here : 'Who's Number 1?' Is Fans' Battle Cry of the 1980s

September 26, 1985|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

Scott Cathcart does it 40 weeks a year from an inconspicuous single-story building in Cerritos. Fred Baer spends a like amount of time doing it in an office at his home in the San Francisco Bay area. Mark Tennis chooses to do it in the rural stretches of the small north-central California town of Tracy.

The it , the common denominator the three deal in, is producing sports controversy--and on a weekly basis.

As part of their jobs, Cathcart, Baer and Tennis produce amateur sports polls, more commonly referred to as "Top 10s."

These weekly rankings of California high school and community college athletic teams are the focus of dozens of boosters, coaches and college scouts. "Who's Number 1?" is the battle cry of the sports fan of the 1980s.

Plenty to Choose From

Comparing teams has become so popular that virtually every newspaper in the state has its own poll.

USA Today, which heralds itself as "the nation's newspaper," probably accelerated the trend when it unveiled its national prep polls in a variety of sports.

Today, a poll junkie can choose among local, regional, statewide and even national polls. And how they sometimes do differ!

Last year, for instance, the Notre Dame High School baseball team was ranked first in the nation by USA Today, but Cal Hi Sports rated it only second in the state.

How do these polls make their selections, and which is most accurate?

Each has its own formula, yet most rely on a variety of sources.

Stimulating Interest

"Too many of them place the emphasis on Ws and Ls (wins and losses) and not on the strength of the schedule," said Tom Hamilton of The Times, who has voted in a regional prep poll in Orange County since 1976. "Look at how many CIF seeded teams (in the playoffs) never make the semis or finals."

But poll producers, like Baer of the JC Athletic Bureau, see polls as a device to stimulate interest.

"Polls aren't supposed to please anyone," said Baer. "They're to create controversy."

In Orange County eight newspaper reporters and a handful of sports reporters from the electronic media use a descending point system to vote weekly in a prep poll that ranks area teams in football, basketball and baseball.

Probably the most watched poll is that of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section.

State Divided Geographically

The poll divides the Southern Section into geographic sections.

Cathcart is the sports publicity director for the Southern Section, largest in the state with nearly 500 school members. He publishes weekly polls in 14 of the section's 21 sports.

In football, boys and girls basketball and baseball, he uses a point system based on phone-in votes each Monday morning from selected sportswriters. For the others, he relies on coaches, league representatives or assistant Len Locher, an adept statistician, to furnish the information for his Top 10s.

Several of the polls are compiled by coaching organizations and sent to Cathcart for publication. Of all the local high school polls, those from the Southern Section receive the greatest exposure.

Started Poll in 1962

Baer began ranking California community college basketball teams in 1962 in his JC Sportswire newsletter and in 1966 founded the JCAB, a private, statewide statistical and ratings service specializing in community college athletics. He uses reports from coaches, sports information directors and reporters to compile his Top 20s. Although it is not connected with the California Assn. of Community Colleges, the JCAB promotes itself as the official ranking service of the Community College Sports Information Directors Assn. and various state coaching groups.

The JCAB draws funds from a variety of sources. In addition to holding contracts with the 12 California community college athletic conferences, Baer charges "a very modest subscription fee" for his weekly releases. In the mid-1970s he expanded the service to include national football rankings. He also has an agreement with USA Today to supply weekly lists of the best high school track times in California.

Tracy Press sports editor Mark Tennis and his uncle, Nelson Tennis, created the independent Cal-Hi Sports newsletter six years ago to stimulate interest in high school events around the state.

'Consensus of Opinions'

Mark was a journalism student at San Jose State at the time. The fee-based service uses input from coaches and writers to rate teams, as well as Nelson's search for scores in dozens of newspapers from around the state.

Formerly a chemist in San Francisco, Nelson Tennis gained experience by conducting a poll for the Sacramento Bee in the 1970s. Mark calls the Cal-Hi poll "a consensus of opinions."

According to Mark Tennis, Cal-Hi Sports uses a number of criteria, including enrollment, to divide schools into five divisions for rating purposes. The service also names all-state teams in football, boys and girls basketball and baseball.

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