It had been a long time coming when athletic directors and principals from eight local high schools from the athletic league collectively known as the PAC 8 sat down together last Tuesday at a big table at the Custom House, a casual harlequin restaurant overlooking the Avila Beach Pier.
On the menu: the future landscape of prep sports on the Central Coast.
It was the culmination of more than a year of discussions. And representatives from seven of the schools — Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, St. Joseph, Pioneer Valley, Righetti, Paso Robles and Mission Prep high schools — had decided they were tired of waiting.
When the meeting was over, they agreed it was time for a major change. The schools would petition to move out of the Southern Section, a massive and highly competitive athletics conference that stretches from south of Los Angeles to Paso Robles, and into the smaller Central Section composed mostly of schools from the San Joaquin Valley.
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It is an unprecedented power play that would affect everything from the school’s sports travel budgets to football championships — and with the exception of representatives from Atascadero High School — everyone who attended the meeting at Custom House agreed it was the right thing to do.
The next morning, Pioneer Valley athletic director Greg Lanthier sent an email to CIF Central Section commissioner Jim Crichlow informing him that eight schools, with Santa Maria taking the place of Atascadero, were planning to petition to become a part of the Central Section beginning in the Fall of 2018.
But nothing is a slam dunk, yet.
Atascadero could still join, and there is also a big divide between the PAC 8 schools and schools in the Los Padres League, including three from San Luis Obispo County. Every school official who spoke to The Tribune last week said it is highly unlikely that any of the Los Padres League members from northern Santa Barbara County — such as Lompoc, Santa Ynez and Cabrillo — would take off for the Central Section.
That leaves three schools — Morro Bay, Nipomo and Templeton — with a big decision. Will they stay or will they go?
Reason behind move: Money, Wins and Power
The PAC 8 is the northernmost league in the CIF-Southern Section. Come playoff time, that becomes a big factor in terms of travel expenses.
“With over 600 schools in the Southern Section, we find ourselves traveling an incredible amount of miles, and I really believe the miles we travel are totally unnecessary,” longtime Arroyo Grande athletic director Dwight MacDonald said. “It’s not good for kids, it’s not good for education, and for me it is not necessarily good for competition.”
In May, Arroyo Grande’s boys volleyball team traveled more than 500 total miles to Menifee to play Paloma Valley High School in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs on a Tuesday night. After losing in five sets, the team arrived back in Arroyo Grande at 1:30 a.m. That trip cost the school an estimated $1,100, according to MacDonald.
MacDonald estimates that Arroyo Grande, one of the most successful athletic schools in the area, spends about $60,000 in playoff travel expenses and hotel costs. San Luis Obispo athletic director Jeff Brandow said his average playoff travel expenses are around $40,000.
“The cost is excessive in my opinion,” said MacDonald, adding that he was in favor of breaking up the Southern Section into smaller chunks, but that idea never really picked up steam.
Brandow, MacDonald and Paso Robles High athletic director Anthony Morales said that moving to the Central Section would dramatically reduce travel costs and cut travel time nearly in half, in most cases. The farthest Central Section school from Arroyo Grande is 194 miles, with most schools in the 130-150-mile range. A shorter trip also allows students to miss less school and gives more parents a chance to see their kids play, they said.
On top of travel costs, the Central Section allows its schools to keep 30 percent of the money made from ticket sales during playoff games, Central Section commissioner Jim Crichlow told the Tribune, while the Southern Section allows 20 percent.
Pioneer Valley and other Santa Maria schools who signed up for the move aren’t as concerned about travel as they are with keeping things “fair” for student athletes during the season.
Pioneer Valley athletic director Greg Lanthier said moving to the Central Section would allow the schools more autonomy and a chance to form their own league using the competitive equity model. In that plan, which all the ADs have tentatively agreed to, teams would be divided into an upper and lower league for each sport that would shift based on recent records.
Lanthier said creating competitive equity leagues would prevent situations like Pioneer Valley’s girls volleyball team, which hasn’t won a PAC 8 match in four years.
“My personal opinion is that it’s not in the best interest of kids,” Lanthier said. “Not just the kids who are getting beat 25-0 on the volleyball court, it’s the kids that are beating you 25-0. It’s not good for them, either.”
Russ Edwards, Nipomo athletic director (above), disagrees.
“I don’t understand the concern of, ‘I have a sport that never wins,’ ” Edwards said. “Continue to work until you win. Don’t reconfigure.”
Edwards said he doesn’t have a strong opinion for or against the move, but in speaking to The Tribune last week, he referenced many ways in which the move wouldn’t be good for Nipomo.
On travel: “That’s a legitimate argument, but I don’t know, I would rather drive four and a half hours south on good highways. Highway 46 is not great, as far as accidents,” he said.
As much as travel, money and safety play a factor for these schools, as with all sports, it’s all about winning. Nipomo likes its place in the Southern Section’s Northern League, especially for football, the marquee sport and cash cow.
Every season, Nipomo competes for a football league title, and in 2014 the Titans won a CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division title. Edwards is worried that a move to the Central Section might put Nipomo in a difficult spot in an upper division.
At home with the proposed two-league model, Nipomo would likely be placed in a football league with Arroyo Grande, Atascadero and Paso Robles, teams that Nipomo has struggled to beat on the football field in the past. But according to sources close to the situation, Pioneer Valley might go into the upper league in football to make the move more enticing for Nipomo.
The same goes for San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles, bigger schools that would have a better chance at winning division titles in a Central Section that has 102 schools as opposed to a Southern Section with more than 600. That was part of the reason those schools chose to move.
But with Nipomo, it might not have a choice.
Santa Maria Swept Up
Representatives from Santa Maria High School were not at the PAC 8 meeting on Tuesday in Avila Beach, but when the Central Section proposal went out, the Los Padres League school was included. According to multiple sources close to the situation, Santa Maria didn’t have much of a say.
With Pioneer Valley and Righetti high schools on board the for the move, the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Superintendent’s Office recommended that Santa Maria, the third high school in the district, join the other two schools.
Nipomo officials are leery that could happen to them, as well.
Nipomo principal John Denno acknowledged the possibility of the district pushing the school into the Central Section, but he said as of this week there has been no mandate by the Lucia Mar Unified School district despite the fact that its sister high school, Arroyo Grande, was one of the biggest proponents of the move.
“The gain for us isn’t as big as it is for other schools,” Denno said.
Morro Bay is in a similar spot to Nipomo.
With fellow San Luis Coastal Unified School District school San Luis Obispo leading the Central Section charge, Morro Bay principal Kyle Pruitt said he has received “no directive” to pursue a move. He did acknowledge that they could be forced to move with San Luis Obispo High already on board.
Templeton athletic director Lindsay Campana, in an emailed statement to The Tribune, said her school, which is in its own district, “is weighing this decision very carefully, as it is one that is driven by doing what is best for our student-athletes and coaches. There are several significant pros and cons of this move, and at this time, we are still in the process of gathering valuable information to form a position to recommend to our TUSD Board of Trustees, if necessary.”
Officials from Atascadero, Nipomo, Morro Bay said basically the same thing. Nipomo appears to hold more power as the lead domino.
Many ADs and officials who spoke to The Tribune believe that if Nipomo decides to go to the Central Section, Morro Bay and Templeton will follow suit, as would Atascadero. It would be difficult to have a local league without all three agreeing to stay.
Denno said he anticipates Nipomo and Arroyo Grande will make a decision collectively as a district. And with Arroyo Grande being the top sports program and largest high school in the district, it’s hard to see Nipomo not following its lead.
The goal since the beginning of the Central Section discussions was to have 10 teams — what some are calling “the magic number” — in a local Central Section league.
Right now there are eight with Atascadero, a school that was initially in favor of the move until it was time to sign on the dotted line, expected to eventually join to make it nine. If Nipomo joins, that makes 10 teams with the likelihood that Templeton and Morro Bay would also join.
What would arise form all this behind the scenes dealing and school politics would be a brand new era of sports on the Central Coast.
The schools are forced into the choice now because the Southern Section is set to realign it leagues next year and won’t do so again until it completes a four year cycle. Once the leagues are realigned, the Southern Section won’t let the teams leave.
Even if everyone gets on board, it’s still not a done deal.
The Central Section ultimately decides if it wants to accept the eight teams and its conditions — a promise that the teams will be able to host playoff games after the switch, the right to create its own league and a spot on the Executive Board. The school’s letter of intent will be presented to the Executive CIF Board on Oct. 5, and a final agreement must be reached by March 1, 2017.
Only then will the schools find out if they have a seat at the Central Section table.