High School Sports

Football proposals aim to 'shrink' season, balance brackets, reward strength of schedule

Oakdale coach Trent Merzon celebrates the go ahead touchdown over Central Catholic during the Valley Oak League game at Central Catholic High School in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.
Oakdale coach Trent Merzon celebrates the go ahead touchdown over Central Catholic during the Valley Oak League game at Central Catholic High School in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. The Modesto Bee

Even with their teams were closing in on CIF State championships, coaches Roger Canepa and Trent Merzon spoke about the grind of the California high school football season.

Canepa's Raiders went 16-0 in 2015, annexing the last of four consecutive state championships. During that remarkable stretch, Central Catholic played 63 football games, the most of any team in the Stanislaus District.

Oakdale, the Raiders' chief Valley Oak League rival, isn't far behind. The Mustangs have played 59 games over the last four seasons, and played 16 games en route to CIF State Bowl appearances in 2012 and 2016.

"That's an NFL season," Canepa said. "More than college teams play."

Relief may be on the way.

Proposals to alter the section’s playoff format will be introduced at the Board of Managers meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 31, at The Reserve at Spanos Park in Stockton. The meeting begins at 9 a.m.

One proposal gaining traction would establish 12-team brackets for divisions I through VI, providing the top-four seeds in each division with a first-round bye. Currently, divisions I through III compete with 16-team brackets. Divisions IV through VI feature eight teams.

“This would shrink the chances of somebody playing 16 games in a season,” said Will DeBoard, the section’s assistant commissioner.

The 12-team bracket could potentially lighten the load for the section’s top contenders, reducing the risk of injury and fatigue.

"What we did, I try to tell people how hard it was to win just one (state bowl)," Canepa said. "Our problem is always going to be depth. Our 11 players can play with anyone's 11, but our guys play both ways. It's not an excuse; that's just the way it is. The more games you play, the harder it gets on your body. It would help a lot. One less game would be better."

The change also would balance out the brackets, reducing the likelihood of a first round game finishing with a running clock and empty stands. In the fall, there were 13 first-round games decided by 30 or more points in divisions I through IV, some involving Stanislaus District teams.

The top two seeds in Division I, Folsom and Oak Ridge, trounced their first-round opponents 76-9 and 63-12.

Central Catholic rolled Stagg 65-18 in its Division II opener, while Oakdale, the top seed in Division III, whipped McNair 56-12. Also in D-III, Patterson overwhelmed East Union 63-28, Christian Brothers blanked Benicia 59-0, and Manteca roughed up Rio Americano 62-21.

Under the proposal, Oakdale, Manteca, Christian Brothers and Patterson would have received first-round byes.

"It’s no secret. The lopsided first round games have been on a lot of people’s minds,” DeBoard said. "You’re averaging a running clock and the fans recognize that. They’re not showing up for those games."

Canepa stands in lock-step with the football advisory committee, which is composed of select current and former high school football coaches from around the section. Area coaches currently on the committee are Escalon's Mark Loureiro, Patterson's Rob Cozart and Golden Valley's Kevin Swartwood.

"I think all the football guys are saying the same thing: Let's cut it back a game or two," Canepa said. "Do we really need all of these teams in the playoffs? I think they're right. The committee is trying to get one less game because they know it's a long season."

Another first-reading proposal limits the number of automatic qualifiers from each league to just the champion.

In the case of the Trans-Valley League this past fall, when Ripon, Escalon and Modesto Christian finished in a three-way tie for first, DeBoard said all three would have advanced under the terms of the new proposal.

Once the league champions are set, the seeding committee would use rankings produced by CalPreps to fill out the brackets. This proposal would reward teams for building competitive schedules, DeBoard said, switching the focus from finding six wins to finding quality opponents. He used Oakdale as an example. In recent years, the Mustangs have sought out state-caliber opponents, including Folsom (last fall), Campolindo (2016) and Crater of Oregon (2016).

“For those schools that have a hard time finding schools to play them, that won’t be the case anymore,” DeBoard said. "Even if you play a strong team and lose, you won’t be punished for it. It's a good loss."