Nothing introduces spring quite like the end of the basketball playoffs, as the last few Stanislaus District teams are knocked from contention.
This year's three-week postseason run, however, gave us plenty of positive memories to carry into this offseason.
It also taught us a lot about how the playoffs in particular and basketball in general can improve next season. These are 10 important things we learned during the playoffs:
1 THREE'S A CROWD: One of the worst decisions the section has made in years is putting three officials on the court for playoff games.
We use two all season, and kids and officials learn to play at that pace. I've never seen worse officiating than I saw during these playoffs.
Officials were constantly out of position — they're forced to change position to accommodate that third person on the court, and end up guessing on calls if they don't have a clear view — and they were whistle-happy.
Most officials call 10 to 12 fouls a game, and some maintain that pace even with three on the court. It leads to embarrassing situations for the section, such as the D-4 boys final between Modesto Christian and Colfax.
With the section's top teams, a three-man crew spoiled the game with 47 fouls. Section officials were as upset as fans, particularly because they don't control who officiates playoff games.
The high school game is not so fast that two competent officials can't handle the calls.
2 ARCO RECEIVES AN "A": One of the best decisions the section has made is staging title games at Arco Arena. A once-in-a-lifetime for many, its an opportunity to play on an NBA court and the downside — shooting percentages tend to suffer — is worth the excitement that it provides.
The big-game atmosphere, beginning with the road trip to Sacramento and charging onto the court for warmups has no equal in other sports.
3 SATURDAY NIGHT SPECIALS: Look for more teams to play non-league games on Saturday next year to ready themselves for section and regional playoffs. Many of the top programs are rarely pushed in league, and fail to show adequate improvement the last two months of the season.
Modesto Christian has been playing these games in January and February for years, bringing in Bay Area teams or visiting North Coast or Sacramento teams. These games don't count against the power ratings and they're the reason MC is still playing after the rest of the district is done.
4 VALERIE MOORE'S AN MVP: Modesto Christian's loss to McKinleyville in Saturday's NorCal semifinal highlighted the 5-foot-10 sophomore's importance. She tore her ACL in the section playoffs, exposing MC's weakness — a lack of girls who can create a shot.
Guard Brandi Henton had a memorable season, but there wasn't another girl who consistently could break down a defense and score like Moore. When she went down, it made MC vulnerable to the zone.
5 THE MORE THE MERRIER: Taking a trip to the playoffs is a highlight for any player, so make it more accessible. Expand divisions to 24 teams, they're 16 now, giving byes to the top eight seeds. Play girls' openers Saturday and boys' Monday, then resume the normal tournament schedule with girls the following Tuesday and boys on Wednesday.
Does it water down the playoffs? Yes, but there's scant difference between a No. 16 seed and a No. 22 seed. There will be plenty of upsets, too, and it could raise some extra cash for schools and the section.
6 WE NEED ONE RULEBOOK: Officials appear to be using four or five books, because each region in Northern California has its own style. Stanislaus District officials are heavy-handed, often whistling physical play that is allowed in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
When district teams hit the playoffs, the first quarter is often spent learning how the officials will call the game. San Jose-area officials allow considerable hand-checking, but district officials don't.
Sacramento officials often allow contact on the way to the basket, but not so in the district. If other regions aren't going to change, the district must.
7 NORTH COAST IS KING: No secret here, but North Coast schools improve dramatically during the season because they are constantly being tested. Three of the top four boys' teams in D-4, for example, are from one North Coast league. More of those kids also play high-level travel ball, leading to an even larger talent gap.
Short of jumping sections, the best thing for the district do do is beef up schedules, set up Saturday Night Specials and encourage their players to participate in travel ball.
8 BACKCOURT BONANZA: We may never seed another backcourt combination like MC's Isaiah Burse and Henton. The boy-girl duo led their teams to the regional semifinals before falling to North Coast teams. To have a guard on each team that was capable of playing with any player from anywhere in Northern California speaks volumes of the coaching skills of Gary Porter and Robb Spencer.
9 PUBLIC SCHOOLS MIA: The section is making it very difficult for small public schools to compete for a title, in part because it wants MC to stay D-4. It's no coincidence that it is often just above the cutoff between D-4 and D-5, but that forced all of the small public schools to play up in D-4, too. The state allows each section to determine its divisions.
Only schools with 300 or fewer students can play D-5 in this section, and only five of 32 schools in the division are public. It means schools with 400 or so kids must play schools with 1,100 or more — the D-4 cap is 1,125 students.
It's also no surprise the section's D-5 schools were 0-for-7 to open the regional playoffs, as other section let larger schools go D-5. In the North Coast, D-5 schools can have up to 425 students. In the Central Coast, the cap is at 489.
10 LOSING ALWAYS HURTS: The deeper into the playoffs, it seems, the deeper the pain of defeat. Boys and girls alike shed tears without regard for what anyone might think. It's that emotion that makes the basketball playoffs a treat.
My last memory of this season: We were walking out of Modesto Christian's gym long after the girls' loss to McKinleyville and saw Spencer still sitting on the bench, pondering what went wrong — or maybe he was already planning for next season's team?
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at 578-2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org