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Postseason Chances—Size Matters

Two-part series examines how CCS playoff success can be greatly affected based on school enrollment; Palo Alto a quick beneficiary of vault to Division I.

Sports fans often like to ponder what their favorite team’s window of opportunity is. How long will the core of top players be together? When will the team reach its peak performance level? Will the precocious youngsters blossom into stars? Will the seasoned veterans maintain their edge for another year or two?

High school sports fit this mold just as other levels do.

But in the Central Coast Section, the potential for postseason greatness is also directly affected by a team’s divisional placement. Winning a section championship in a division that boasts multiple West Catholic Athletic League powerhouses, for example, is usually much more difficult than prevailing in another playoff bracket.

In boys and girls basketball and girls volleyball, postseason placement is solely determined by the schools’ enrollment. The biggest schools play each other in Division I; mid-sized programs face other mid-sized programs in Divisions II and III, and the smaller schools match up in Divisions IV and V.

What’s striking about the 2010-11 CCS sports year through the fall and winter seasons, however, is how some programs have benefited enormously from slight shifts in their relative school size.

Palo Alto High and Notre Dame-Belmont, in particular, have maximized their newfound divisional alignments with historic seasons in multiple sports. And it appears their windows of opportunity are still wide open.

Meanwhile, some other perennial contenders (Burlingame in boys basketball and Mountain View and Los Gatos in girls volleyball, for example) continue to fall short in WCAL-heavy playoff brackets, seemingly not able to buy a break.

So how did some programs get fortunate with their divisional placement while others could only look on with envy? It comes down to some schools’ suddenly having too many or too few students to be placed in Divisions II and III – the brackets historically packed with the WCAL heavyweights – while others remain trapped in those loaded divisions because of enrollments that fit squarely in the middle of those fields.

Today, in the first of a two-part series, we’ll take a look at the beneficial bump to Division I. On Monday, we’ll address the fortuitous drop to Division IV.

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Sometimes, bigger is better.

Take Palo Alto High. In girls volleyball, the Vikings qualified for the Central Coast Section playoffs in nine of the 10 years before this past season and were placed in either Division II or III each time. But despite winning the title in tough Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division each year from 2006-09, Paly never achieved ultimate glory, falling six times to the eventual CCS champion, including twice in the title match. But last fall, Palo Alto landed in Division I – as the smallest school in the 12-team field -- and promptly followed its fifth straight league crown by rolling to the program’s . The Vikings capped their dream campaign by winning their inaugural and , as well.

Had Paly been placed in Division II as it had the previous six years, it would have been fascinating to see how the 41-1 Vikings would have fared against St. Francis (the and ) and Presentation (CCS and ). Regardless, Paly’s path to postseason riches was made a lot simpler in the much weaker CCS Division I field.

“It’s a dramatically different landscape when you put all the top private schools in one division, which is basically what Division II is,” Vikings coach Dave Winn said.

Shifting the focus to Palo Alto’s girls basketball team, that less-decorated program also made the most of its vault to Division I this year. The Vikings earned and NorCal appearance, despite being the smallest of the 16 CCS entrants. Palo Alto had played in Division II throughout the previous decade, making just two semifinal appearances in nine trips.

As fate would have it, Paly’s boys basketball team remained in Division II (as it had for the past decade) as the largest in the 16-team bracket this year. For the third time in five years, the Vikings lost in the CCS semifinals to eventual champion Mitty.

Based on the 2010-11 California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS) enrollments, which will be used to determine the 2011 girls volleyball and 2012 boys and girls basketball fields, Paly should expect identical placement next year. The Vikings look to again be the smallest Division I school in girls volleyball and girls basketball and the largest in Division II in boys basketball.

Interestingly, Paly’s cross-town rival also appears well-positioned for a CCS breakthrough in Division I in the coming seasons. Over the past decade, Gunn has had a slightly higher school population than Paly’s, which resulted in Gunn’s moving up to Division I about a year before the Vikings in various sports.

After improving for four straight years in the Division II girls basketball playoffs, capped by a runner-up finish to Mitty in 2009, Gunn made its second straight appearance in Division I this year. Ironically, after advancing to a CCS final for just the second time, , which hadn’t been nearly as strong in recent years.

But the CBEDS suggest Gunn should be comfortably in Division I for the next few years – and with all five starters in girls basketball set to return, including two sophomores and a freshman, the Titans’ window of opportunity seems to be wide open.

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COMING MONDAY -- PART II: A reduction in school size can greatly enhance a program’s postseason possibilities as well. Notre Dame-Belmont maximized its drop to Division IV in multiple sports this year, and Soquel appears positioned to follow suit in the near future. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz may be left to wonder if it just let a golden opportunity slip away.

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