Any doubts about whether the La Habra High School football program belonged in Division 2 were quickly put to rest last Friday.
The Highlanders, who got bumped all the way up to the second-highest division in the CIF Southern Section, knocked off No. 3 seed Oaks Christian with a 35-28 win. And now there’s no telling how far they might go.
“I’m not sure there’s a guy around who said ‘I had La Habra to beat Oaks Christian,'” Highlanders head coach Frank Mazzotta said. “I’m certainly not shocked, only because I’m with the kids everyday and I’ve seen us improve daily. Good teams gets better and don’t let losses define them.”
This didn’t look like the best season for La Habra to negotiate such a massive jump in divisions. Sure, the Highlanders won the Southwest Division last season and Mazzotta has won seven CIF championships, all since 2002. But there was plenty of talent to replace from last year’s team and La Habra looked pretty ordinary, on paper, entering last Friday’s game with a 6-4 record and second-place finish in the Freeway League.
Conversely, Oaks Christian was considered one of the division’s favorites and was moving down in divisions compared to recent seasons. The Lions had scored 60 points or more in five games this season. Didn’t matter, La Habra left town with an upset win that caused one local radio/TV personality to question Oaks Christian’s heart and coaching on social media.
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“I definitely thought we were the underdogs going into last Friday’s game,” Mazzotta said. “Our division is really tough, we’ve got a lot of great teams, but I think we’ll be the underdogs in most games.
“It’s one game in the division. I don’t know if it validates anything yet. Being in this division, I thought that validates things enough. For all the kids, it was definitely validation to go back and say we are getting better.”
Now, the Highlanders have a good shot to make the semifinals. It won’t be easy with Redlands East Valley coming to town on Friday in what looks like a total toss-up game. Redlands East Valley is 9-2 and won the Citrus Belt League this season.
Perhaps nobody is more anxiously awaiting the start of the high school football playoffs than CIF Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod.
This week is not only the first round of the postseason, but it’s also the first chance to see the new playoff grouping system that Wigod pushed so hard for in action.
“There should be a reasonable expectation to see closer games,” Wigod said. “We haven’t seen it yet, because we haven’t played it. But don’t think for one second that I can’t wait to see the scores from Friday night. I really look forward to seeing what data comes from it.”
One of the major reasons why Wigod urged the Southern Section to base playoff divisions solely on competitive equity rather than league placement was to clean up some of the non-competitive results that started to proliferate many of the divisions, especially in the first and second rounds.
The first part of the process played out last weekend when the Southern Section crunched all the numbers and released the playoff fields for all thirteen divisions. Fears about whether teams that would have made the postseason under the previous now missing out despite finishing in the top two or three in their respective leagues were quickly put to rest.
Wigod reports that only one third-place team in Divisions 1-9 missed the playoffs. And all teams that finished in first or second place in their respective made the playoffs in every division.
“It went really well,” Wigod said. “I think what people may not understand is that we’re in a really tight window. From the end of the games on Friday night until Sunday morning, we’re taking in a tremendous amount of information and making sure all the entries are correct. There’s a lot we do in a short window and I can tell you this particular year, it went very smoothly.”
The new format also allows for schools to move up or down in division based on performance. Every August, the Southern Section will notify schools of their division placement based on the previous two years worth of data. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for Wigod and his team to adjust based on what the data shows.
But first things first, and that’s the hope for more competitive games. Wigod expressed the need for action during last year’s playoffs when the average margin of victory in the Pac-5 Division (now Division 1) was 37.5 points per game. Three others divisions cited produced final scoreboards in the first round that ranged from 25 to 37 point spreads.
“This (new) system gave us a lot more flexibility and kind of allowed us to go deeper into our seeding process and put more appropriate games together,” Wigod said. “We’ll take a sampling of some divisions and say a year ago this is what we got and here’s what we got this year. We’ll analyze it and see what comes from it.”