Change is all around in Central Coast prep football this season.
For starters, four teams are in different leagues, as the PAC 7 has welcomed Pioneer Valley and St. Joseph, the Los Padres League took back Lompoc, and Coast Union joined the East Sierra League.
Perhaps more importantly, the PAC 7 as a whole was moved from the Northern Division of the CIF-Southern Section into the Western Division. The LPL, meanwhile, stayed put in the Northwest Division and finds itself a likely contender there after an exodus of others.
Additionally, Mission Prep, which had played in the Central Section, is entering its first year in the Southern Section, in which it will compete as an independent.
Only two guaranteed playoff berths for PAC 7
In the five-league Northern Division, the PAC 7 had been accustomed to having three teams earn guaranteed playoff berths. But six leagues make up the new-look Western Division, meaning each league will only have two guaranteed playoff spots, with four at-large bids to be handed out to make up a 16-team bracket.
Most PAC 7 coaches voiced confidence that their league’s third-place finisher would receive at least one of the at-large berths.Even so, taking away a guaranteed playoff spot should increase the intensity on a week-to-week basis, Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said.
“Every game is going to have heightened significance, if for no other reason than there are only two guaranteed playoff spots,” Goossen said.
Some coaches voiced concern about how the premium on at-large berths might affect nonleague scheduling — if playing tougher early season competition could be sacrificed to manufacture more appealing overall records. This year, however, the changes didn’t appear to alter teams’ usual scheduling profiles.
“I don’t think you can water down your preseason schedule in this league and compete,” Atascadero coach Vic Cooper said.
“If anything, you may continue to upgrade your preseason schedule as much as possible, just so you can get through that league schedule and guarantee yourself that playoff spot.”
While fewer teams from the PAC 7 may actually make the playoffs, there is a pervading sense that those that make it may encounter a more leveled playing field once they get there.
From 1993 to 2001, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo combined to claim 11 divisional championships, but none had been able to break through in recent years.
One of the primary reasons the Southern Section realigns divisions is to enhance competitive equity. Leaving the Northern Division got the PAC 7 away from the Marmonte and Foothill leagues, which include powerhouses such as Westlake, Moorpark, St. Bonaventure, Oaks Christian, Valencia and Hart, which have routinely ended area teams’ postseason runs in the past decade.
A handful of such schools are widely thought to draw talent from multiple communities, in stark contrast to this area’s single-community rosters. In February, for example, St. Bonaventure forfeited all of its wins from 2009 because of a missing document for an out-of-state transfer student.
“I believe it was time,” San Luis Obispo coach David Kelley said of the realignment. “There’s some fresh blood in there, a lot of teams that don’t know each other.
“I believe that whoever does go out of our league has a shot to win it all — a very legitimate shot.”
The revised Western Division isn’t without one remaining superpower, however. Serra of Gardena, which came from the Northwest Division, is widely ranked as a top-25 team in the country and has at least five seniors nationally recognized as bona fide Division I recruits.
LPL appears poised for playoff success
The section-wide realignment may have had even more of an impact locally on the Los Padres League, which is now arguably the deepest league in the Northwest Division.
Outside of the LPL, just one team that advanced past the opening round of last year’s Northwest Division playoffs — El Segundo — remains in the division. Nipomo is the only other 2009 quarterfinalist still in place.
In fact, Templeton and Nipomo opened the season ranked as the top two teams in the Northwest Division by CalPreps.com, with Morro Bay checking in at No. 9. All of the top 10 was closely bunched together.
“It’s wide open,” Nipomo senior defensive lineman Chris Reed said. “We don’t have to go through a kind of team like Oaks Christian or Serra. Whoever wants it more will get it.”
Morro Bay senior quarterback Sam Crizer echoed a similar sentiment.
“You should never go into a game thinking you can’t win,” Crizer said, “but those (types of Oaks Christian) games are pretty close to that. I think the realignment has definitely re-awoken our team, knowing that we have a definite shot.”
Indeed, Oaks Christian — which has become known for its celebrity parents such as Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana and Will Smith — ended Morro Bay’s seasons in 2006 and 2008.
“It’s pretty much all up for grabs right now,” Morro Bay coach John Andree said. “Had there been this realignment a few years ago, there might have been an LPL (divisional) champion every year.”
After a recent practice that was merely “OK,” Nipomo coach Russ Edwards said, the Titans’ staff stressed to its players the newfound opportunity they have.
“I think it presents a great opportunity for somebody from our league to have a shot of getting to that final game,” Edwards said.
Small schools also on move
Mission Prep, after moving from the Central Section to the Southern Section, will be competing for an at-large berth in the Northeast Division playoffs. The Royals need to win at least five regular-season games to qualify.
Meanwhile, Coast Union — the only Central Section outfit left in San Luis Obispo County — is hoping to be more competitive after switching to the ESL from the West Sierra League. Also this offseason, Coast Union joined the Coast Valley League in basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball, but not in football — which the CVL plays at the 8-man level.
The Tribune’s Scott Silvey contributed to this report.