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Another View: Private schools have unfair advantage in playoffs

By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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The current high school athletic playoff system in California, in which public schools compete against private schools, who don’t have to abide by geographical boundaries and can entice players with scholarships and perks, is a sham. Unless the playing field is leveled by the establishment of separate leagues for each type of school, statewide athletic competitions will lose all credibility. Sixteen of the 20 schools competing in last weekend’s California Interscholastic Federation NorCal Basketball Championships were private. Nine out of 10 of those NorCal Division titles were “won” by private schools. Seventeen of 20 schools state-championship bound this weekend are private. Don’t make any mistake about it though, schools like St. Mary’s of Stockton, which beat out the Del Oro girls, and Archbishop Mitty, which beat the Woodcreek boys, worked hard for their banners. After all, manufacturing an athletics dynasty is no small feat, even for a private school. Clever undercover scouting and recruiting off of the radar of the CIF takes skill. Not being confined to the same geographic boundary lines as public school coaches makes your surveying area nearly endless. That’s enough to wear any coach out. And of course, there are the ultimatums given that keep you up at night – moving up to a more competitive division or getting a title in the bag in a lower division? As fans and media crowd venues like Power Balance Pavilion we are supposed to turn a blind eye to the glaring disparities between private and public schools when it comes to athletics. Then when the public schools kids, many of whom have played on teams together since childhood, lose to a private school we are supposed to celebrate them, rally the troops and make a go at it again next year. Sure we can grumble about it under our breaths or maybe even write a cleverly crafted argument or two, but year in and year out it happens like clockwork. I’ll be brave enough to admit my griping is personal. My sophomore year at Woodcreek High School in Roseville I watched my team get defeated by mighty Mater Dei (more on them later) in the state championships. Our football team was notoriously terrible at the time and a basketball championship meant everything to us. Faces covered in black and burgundy and heads held low, we retreated back to suburbia wondering if we would ever have that chance again. Saturday the Woodcreek boys got close to another state championship game, but Archbishop Mitty, which was making its seventh appearance in NorCals, extinguished those hopes. That game followed an emotional rematch between the Del Oro girls and St. Mary’s of Stockton. Mike Takayama’s best team in 25 years of coaching, which holds a 50-plus game winning streak in league, was once again defeated by a parochial powerhouse, which can field players without geographic boundaries. Former Colfax basketball coach Ron Pucci said this has been an issue for years. During his time at Colfax the Falcons lost section championships several years in a row to the 11-time section champions of Modesto Christian. He just accepted that his team had to compete against private schools, some of which pay scholarships to get great athletes. Let’s be fair, though, it’s not an impossible task. There was that one public school that won out of the 10. In the Division I girls championship, Berkeley, a public school beat out Carondelet. Before you make the drive to the state championship game though, keep in mind they will be playing Mater Dei, the nation’s No. 1–ranked team. Their boys basketball program has won the most regional championships and their girls team is ranked No. 14 in most regional championships. Their school website’s homepage banner says “the iPad is coming to all Mater Dei students Fall 2011.” If I were a top-ranked player in my area, you better believe that I would be playing at the school that provided complimentary iPads. How’s that for a recruiting plan? When I interviewed Sac Joaquin Section Commissioner Peter Saco about the issue he admitted it’s not a fair system. “If anybody wants to say it’s a level playing field, it’s not,” Saco said this week. Many private school teams play a highly competitive regional and national schedule, then come back to win their leagues and sections. He also said it is the section’s responsibility to do something about the inequity. One new measure up for consideration on April 27 would require teams with three or more championships to move up a division. Saco is also putting forth a proposal to create an open division. The eight best teams, based on a set of select criteria, would be required to move to the open division and play one another in a playoff for the open state championship. When it comes to illegal and unethical recruiting programs, Saco said that it is very difficult for the CIF to crack down because it is more like school shopping than recruiting. “A lot of your recruiting takes place at cocktail parties,” Saco said. He also said that while most schools aren’t giving full scholarships to athletes, they do offer substantial financial aid packages. Saco went on to say that he perceives this as more of a problem in basketball and volleyball than any of the other sports. While the disparity may be most pronounced in those sports, it is a problem across the board. Placer High School Football Coach Joey Montoya has felt the sting of the public vs. private schools controversy. In the 2009-2010 season Placer lost the Sac Joaquin Section title (61-40) to Modesto Christian. One of Modesto’s top players, Isaiah Burse, didn’t attend there his freshmen year, but appeared as a sophomore. Montoya said he gave Modesto Christian a distinct talent advantage. “I used to not necessarily think it mattered as much as it does,” Montoya said. “Parochial schools have from a resources standpoint better facilities and rules that they don’t have to abide to.” De La Salle of Concord boasts on its football website that the Spartans are “perhaps the greatest sports dynasty of all time.” They have been USA Today National High School Football Champions five times, won the 2009 open division last year and currently have five alumni playing in the NFL. To have that level of talent come out of one school is no coincidence and it is clear that aside from some good coaching and hard work, De La Salle has the ability to pay for top talent. High school athletics are supposed to be about competing and triumphing with the kids you have. They are a platform for learning values, giving athletes a place to improve and a force for unity in communities. We teach kids that hard work is what earns banners. That isn’t true anymore for public school kids. Matching a private school that has the ability to hand-pick their teams from an entire region, and give scholarships and perks, like iPads, against a public school that has a limited area to draw from makes the battle unfair from the start. We teach kids that competition should be fair and then put them in playoffs that obviously aren’t. The proverbial carrot of a title being dangled in front of public schools is nearly illusive. While having an open division might balance out the competition to some degree, it is still a system that ignores the differences between private and public schools when it comes to athletics. The CIF exists for both types of schools. But if there isn’t a way for them to regulate private schools more stringently, they should separate them altogether. For a family of five to attend a state championship game this weekend it would cost no less then $100.55 with parking for the worst seats in the house. Maybe families of public schools could better spend their $100.55 on a donation to their athletic programs in jeopardy of being eliminated because of budget cuts. Until serious changes are made, it’s time for our public high schools to stop playing out the same old charade. Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com