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Area, League, Division Oh my! Clarity vs Confusion - How do High School sports work?
Posted 06/30/2017 03:00PM

The following article is a detailed explanation of the way that the CIF SS (wait, what is that?) You got me, I’m going to do everything I can to make this as clear and straight forward as possible. For the experts in the crowd, this might bore you but there are parents who are new to high school sports and deserve to know exactly what is going on, how it works and most importantly why. Once that is completed, I’ll provide a brief run down of Grace Brethren football history and then focus on the very bright and competitive future for the red and black Lancers.

State – The organization known as California Interscholastic Federation “CIF” oversees all high school athletics.

Section – CIF is divided into 10 sections, some are small and some are large. The Southern Section of CIF covers most of southern California including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernadino, Riverside, Mono, and Inyo counties plus a small part of Kern county. The Southern Section of CIF is commonly referred to as CIFSS or CIF SS.

Area – CIFSS is further broken into areas that are either geographically or categorically aligned. Ventura, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties are part of the Northern Area. This group is rarely heard from and is exists primarily to facilitate releaguing every 4 years.

Leagues – Individual schools agree, via the releaguing process, to group together in leagues. Typically, these are done by geographics to facilitate academics and travel as priorities. However, recent changes have seen ‘football’ only leagues separately from all of the other sports a school offers. Another unique structure is an association or conference. This is when a larger group of schools comes together to form another level of administration with like minded schools and then manages 2 or more leagues. The Tri County Athletic Association in Ventura county is one of these organizations and is commonly referred to as the TCAA. The TCAA is very specifically focused on competitive equity among its 14 member schools so with the exception of football teams will be in one of the leagues for two years and based on performance can be moved to either the higher or lower league. This can get confusing but you could have the girls volleyball team in the Tri Valley League, the Boys Basketball team in the Frontier League and the football team in a whole different league that isn’t even part of the Tri Valley such as the Coastal Canyon league.

Schools – Finally the individual school is the first line of enforcement of CIF regulations. The principal is the authority on any school campus and typically directs the athletic director to execute the day to day operations and ensure that the school’s sports operate according to the blue book, which is the rule book of CIFSS.

I mentioned ‘why’ in the first paragraph. I’m going to give you my belief in why it is structured this way. From the bottom up, the school is the first line of enforcement of the mission of CIF which is:

At the core of the CIF mission statement is the promotion of equity, quality, character and academic development.  See the full mission statement here

 

The local CIF member school is the best place and literally the core of the organization. When the principal in direction of the athletic director leads with these goals in mind, then schools will fulfill this mission. However there are times, when competing forces can influence schools to be a little off kilter on one hand and on the other, it isn’t easy to operate as an independent school all the time. So schools’ affiliate with other schools that are similar. Those affiliations are leagues. The similarities can be status; public or private, size of enrollment or even based on religious affiliation, but usually it comes down to proximity. When all are present, its even better. Leagues assist in guiding the CIF mission and facilitate scheduling, awards and direct the respective section such as the CIF Southern Section as to the best teams to participate in the playoffs. Leagues host championship events for individual sports in order to aid those athletes in moving forward into section championships as well.

 

Sometimes, a school and or league gets ahead of itself, or stacked or undermanned. A conference or association can help some there but in the larger picture, CIFSS needs a regional level of cooperation so it aligns the leagues into Areas. It would seem that those areas would be based on proximity and most are but some aren’t. This article focuses primarily on Ventura county but actually the 48 teams in the Northern Area. This area’s primary responsibility is to meet every four years to deal with what is called ‘realignment’. That effort involves putting teams into leagues.

 

“Aren’t they already in leagues?” you ask. Yes in most cases but there might be a team that wants to come into a new area from another area. (Grace Brethren High School moved from the Small Schools Area into the Northern Area in 2004) When a new school comes in, it has to be placed into a league if it wants to be in one. (A school can always choose to remain independent). Regardless of schools coming in or leaving the number that will be in that ‘area’ for the next four years have to vote on an ‘alignment’. That simply means what school is in what league. Ok, we can move on now right? Not so fast. Realignment can result in a vote that a school does not want and a school can file an appeal with CIFSS (in this case) to have their situation overturned. Does this happen? Yes. Do appeals work? Sometimes.

 

All of this goes back to why. Schools work better in athletics because the work of a team is against another team outside of the existing school. Leagues make that easier. Conferences can help leagues that have a wide variation of quality from sport to sport and for smaller schools. The area keeps the leagues organized and helps CIFSS by having fewer voices to deal with on large matters. Ultimately CIFSS operates according to the blue book. When the school, league, conference and area operate peacefully in line with the mission and the blue book then all is good. When the CIFSS has to get involved formally, which it doesn’t want to do, someone and some school will typically not get what they want. This doesn’t make CIFSS the bad guy, they are just the people with the highest and most distant view of the situation. It allows them to be impartial and able to sort out what works for hundreds of schools, dozens of leagues and areas.

 

If you are still with me, let’s look at the radical transformation of the Northern Area. I’m not going to go back too far as this article is intended to inform people newer to the scene of high school athletics and especially high school football. As a former football coach and athletic director, let me be the one to remind or inform you that football is the sport that drives almost all of this activity. The controversy that comes in league alignments, private school recruiting, dynasty teams and the movement of coaches leads to football being in the lead in just about every category including drama.

 

So where are we now?

On March 23, 2017 the Northern Area met and many, many changes occurred especially in football and virtually every league was affected, which means if you’ve been reading closely, every school is affected. While we want to see what is happening with schools, a big decision was to change the releaguing schedule from every 4 years to every 2 years. Some people like tradition and continuity, but that principle is not part of the 4 core elements of the mission statement of CIF. This decision is largely based on ‘equity’. Individual schools want the ability to change based on a league suddenly being out of balance because a school falls on hard times or a school has become a dynasty. Schools that are struggling should compete in a like environment and a school that has set out to be a dynasty should compete against only the best. Now, keep in mind, that this is all about football. So another change that is happening is an increasing number of ‘football only’ leagues. Grace Brethren High School is an example of that. Grace will participate in the Coastal Canyon league for football only against powerhouse schools like St. Bonaventure, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, and Camarillo. The rest of Grace’s sports will remain in the TCAA (Tri County Athletic Association) in either the Tri Valley league (sport is strong) or Frontier league (sport is weaker)

An interesting component to look at in this regard is ‘equity’.  Look at the approximate enrollment numbers for football in the Coastal Canyon league below:

  • Camarillo 2,500
  • Thousand Oaks 2,300
  • Moorpark 2,000
  • St. Bonaventure 550
  • Grace Brethren 300

When you look at these enrollment numbers, it kind of jumps off the page that this doesn’t fit the definition of equity. However, the school, the league and the area know that Grace Brethren’s football program has been highly competitive over the last 3 seasons. St. Bonaventure is a perennial threat in the playoffs no matter what league they are in. The first three schools are public schools while St. Bonaventure and Grace Brethren are private. Both of those schools look to compete at the highest level and sometimes find it hard to schedule opponents of similar size. Being in a league as difficult as this one is actually what these two schools want. The result? It is equitable.

Decisions made in the area meeting don’t take place until one year after the current year, so the paragraph above and the detail below address the football structure in the Northern Area for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In March of 2019, another realignment meeting will be held and rest assured many more changes will take place.

Football Leagues (or all sports as noted)

Channel (all sports) Lompoc, Dos Pueblos, San Marcos, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Cabrillo 

Marmonte (football only) Westlake, Newbury Park, Calabasas, Oaks Christian

Coastal Canyon (football only) St. Bonaventure, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Grace Brethren 

Camino (football only) Oak Park, Royal, Simi Valley, Agoura, Bishop Diego 

League Name TBD Santa Paula, Fillmore, Carpinteria, Malibu, Nordhoff, Hueneme Santa Clara (for football only) 

Pacific View (all sports) Channel Islands, Oxnard, Pacifica, Rio Mesa, Ventura, Buena 

OK, we aren’t done yet. Leagues represent the regular season and crown champions as well as recommending a team for an at-large berth in the playoffs. This is where CIFSS steps in and ‘re-playoffs’ all 398 eleven man football teams into 13 divisions. This is where people can get confused. It is actually possible for every single team in a league to get into the playoffs. Its unlikely, but possible.

Let’s look again at the Coastal Canyon football league. The list below shows the playoff division the team/school has the opportunity to participate in.

  • St. Bonaventure 2
  • Camarillo 3
  • Thousand Oaks Division 4
  • Moorpark Division 5
  • Grace Brethren Division 8

If you reference the enrollment above you will notice that the three public schools maintain the same sequence, while Grace Brethren’s division keeps them somewhat correlated to enrollment and St. Bonaventure goes from 4th to 1st. CIFSS looks primarily at the program’s performance over the last 2 years. Is this equity? Most definitely.

Well there you have it. You’ve seen the organization and structure. Leagues are still important and can be more proximity based now that equity is determined based on performance in aligning the playoffs. The Grace Brethren football program has an extraordinary opportunity to play a perennial power and 3 schools approximately 8 times their enrollment in league for 2 seasons.  See you on the gridiron.

Sources:

https://www.noozhawk.com/article/area_high_school_leagues_will_have_new_look_in_2018

http://www.ocregister.com/2017/06/09/a-breakdown-of-the-new-cif-ss-football-playoff-divisions-for-2017/

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