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Eric Sondheimer ON HIGH SCHOOLS

CIF's agony is Huskies' ecstasy

December 10, 2007|Eric Sondheimer

It was an agonizing decision for some. How do you choose a Division I representative to the CIF state championship bowl game if there are two equal candidates?

The 10 section commissioners from the California Interscholastic Federation, high school's governing body, met Sunday afternoon at the Home Depot Center, went over lots of statistics, studied polls and ratings, listened to passionate arguments from fellow commissioners, then cast secret ballots. Six votes were needed to end the discussion.

The drama of the final decision unfolded on live television, with CIF Executive Director Marie Ishida revealing that Inland Division champion Corona Centennial (13-1) was given the nod over City Section champion Lake Balboa Birmingham (13-1) and will represent Southern California in Saturday's Division I bowl game against Concord De La Salle (12-0).

There are lots of disappointed Birmingham players, coaches and fans. They wanted a 15th game. They thought the Patriots had earned it, and they would have if there were a real state playoff system.

But the state bowl games format leaves it up to the commissioners to make a judgment on which teams receive bowl invitations based on criteria that include win-loss record, head-to-head competition, common opponents and strength of schedule. Birmingham and Centennial had nearly identical qualifications for the Division I slot from Southern California.

What won out was how each team performed against a singular opponent, Encino Crespi. Birmingham lost to the Celts, 20-6, in a season-opening game on Aug. 30. Centennial defeated Crespi, 41-20, on Sept. 14. Nobody was willing to budge from that specific fact.

"In the end, the common opponent argument is what made the difference," said John Aguirre, a City Section administrator who attended the meeting.

The commissioners refused to be swayed by the fact that Birmingham owned a victory over Long Beach Poly (13-1), the champion of the toughest playoff division in the state, the Pac-5.

Even Birmingham Coach Ed Croson admitted after hearing the news, "If I had to look at it objectively on paper, I would have picked Centennial. Those guys are great guys. I'm happy for them."

Centennial had a compelling story. The Huskies represent the Inland Empire, one of fastest-growing regions in California. Their coach, Matt Logan, has one of the most innovative offensive minds in the Southland, having installed a shotgun offense that has become the standard for excellence in being able to pass and run with equal effectiveness.

His wife died last summer from cancer, leading to an outpouring of sympathy and support for Logan and his family. His players wanted to give him a championship season to show their appreciation for his leadership and commitment in a time of grief.

Birmingham's tale was also meaningful. The Patriots did something few City Section teams have ever accomplished -- defeat Southern Section powers Long Beach Poly and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in the same season. They were 10-0 against City opponents, with no team coming closer than 20 points.

Croson overcame all the disadvantages a City coach must deal with, from lack of resources to not being allowed to hold practices on certain days. He was still able to put on the field one of the most successful teams in the last 20 years of City football.

"People will talk about this team for as long as they talk about great teams in the City," he said. "I think we could have represented the City well."

The message sent in this decision is that playing tough schedules is essential to receive an invite to a state bowl game. Centennial was rewarded for playing top teams outside its geographic region, with games against Santa Ana Mater Dei, Clovis West and Compton Dominguez. The Huskies are already negotiating to play Long Beach Poly next season.

As for Birmingham, Croson isn't wallowing in sorrow. On the contrary, he's not backing down one bit from his ambitious goal of having the Patriots represent the City Section in a state bowl game. He came so close and insists, "I think we can be better in the future."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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