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PREP EXTRA / A weekly look at the high school sports
scene in the Southland | Eric Sondheimer

Single-Division Playoff Issue Dividing the City

January 20, 2000|Eric Sondheimer

The battle lines have been drawn. Now comes a five-month debate that could produce the most dramatic changes in City Section sports since the 1970s.

At stake is the future of playoff competition.

The section's Interscholastic Athletic Committee, composed of 25 coaches, administrators and principals, is scheduled to vote at the end of May whether to approve a single playoff division for all sports.

That would mean no going back to 3-A and 4-A divisions, and goodbye to Division and Invitational formats. There would be one champion in every sport.

The controversial proposal would return the City Section to the good old days. From 1912 to 1974, there was one champion in football. In 1975, teams were split into 3-A and 4-A divisions. By the 1980s, there were multiple champions in almost every sport.

A backlash occurred in the 1990s, with some coaches furious that lower-level championships were being contested at prestigious venues such as the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium while better teams were left behind after losing in the higher-division playoffs.

Barbara Fiege, City Section commissioner, said if a vote were taken today, it would be too close to predict which side would win.

"There's real strong feelings on both sides," she said.

The argument for one division is that too many champions are being crowned, diluting the value of winning a title.

"If everybody gets a trophy, what value is the trophy?" said Darryl Stroh, co-coach of the Granada Hills football team. "Competition is about somebody beating somebody else. We're in a society where nobody wants anybody to lose."

On the other side are those who insist having one division will deny smaller schools the opportunity to compete for a championship.

If the proposal is approved, each sport could decide how many teams qualify for the playoffs, whether it be 32, 24 or 16.

The biggest roadblock to having one division is football. The City Section can't have a 32-team, five-week football tournament because that would mean expanding the season by one week. If the tournament were limited to 16 teams, it probably would force the section to return to its old format, where only first- and second-place finishers in league play qualify.

That might anger many coaches and principals. In the powerful Marine League, for example, Carson, Banning and San Pedro would inevitably battle for two football playoff spots, but one would be left out along with Narbonne, Washington and Gardena. Some would argue that leaving a top team out of the playoffs is an injustice.

But coaches from top programs seem willing to accept fewer participants in the playoffs for the chance to compete in a single division.

"It would really give a big aura of legitimacy to the City Championship," football Coach Bob Francola of Kennedy said. "The best 16 teams should play and everyone else watch."

Here's the difficulty in returning to a single playoff division: The Los Angeles Unified School District has changed too much.

There are a record 711,000 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. There are more than 75 languages spoken by students, with Latinos making up 69.1% of the population. The number of high schools has grown from 49 to 62 when including magnet schools.

But the most compelling reason a single division won't work is the absence of a level playing field. Students are no longer required to attend schools in their neighborhoods, leading to competition between the haves and have-nots. Schools with open enrollment and magnet programs have definite athletic advantages over those that don't.

One coach jokingly proposed having two separate divisions, one for schools that recruit athletes and one for schools that don't.

In a perfect world, where everything is equal, competing in a single playoff division would be ideal. But there is too much disparity and diversity in the City Section to go back in time.

The best solution is to adopt single playoff divisions for those sports where it is feasible. Boys' soccer is a model that works. Its 32-team playoff tournament is the most competitive in the section. Baseball, softball and basketball also could have 32-team, one-division tournaments.

If change is coming, the City Section also should be committed to reforming the way it seeds playoff teams. Having coaches who are directly involved in the playoffs help determine the seedings is a blatant conflict of interest and threatens the credibility of the seeding process.

*

Eric Sondheimer is a columnist for The Times Valley/Ventura editions. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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