What to do About Modesto Christian?

In what should be the first of many confrontations this year in board meetings and courtrooms between officials from the CIF Sac Joaquin Section and Modesto Christian's boys basketball program, a section committee voted last week that no school will be allowed to move up in divisions in basketball, beginning next season.

Modesto Christian is a school with an enrollment of approximately 260 that last year played for the Div. I state title, losing to Mater Dei of Santa Ana, 57-54. But the Crusaders have done it with a few key foreign players, such as guard Richard Midgely and forward Marc Pratt, and some other players, such as graduated All-American Chuck Hayes, who would have no doubt been stars at large, public high schools.

The vote last week means Modesto Christian, which returns all its key players from last year except Hayes, will be able to play up at Div. I for this season. But for the 2002-03 season it will be Division V (the school's enrollment division) all the way. Representatives at the meeting from all of the section's large school leagues voted in favor of the new rule, which was amended to allow a school to play at either its enrollment level or at the level of the league its in.

Midgely, an all-state point guard who has committed to Cal, and Pratt, who has committed to Boise State, were ruled ineligible by the section last June. Local observers, however, such as prep editor Will DeBoard of the Modesto Bee, think court action will eventually allow the duo to play this season. Both are from England and both sat out a year before playing on the varsity squad, unlike other recent high profile foreigners who stepped right in and played on the varsity as freshmen at Artesia of Lakewood and Clovis West of Fresno.

The intent of those who want Modesto Christian and other small private schools to play at their enrollment levels is clear: If these schools are denied the opportunity to play up and win section or state titles at higher levels, then high-profile players and their parents will not be as attracted to go to those schools in the first place.

But what could happen instead is that section and state titles will become less meaningful as a school like Modesto Christian wins playoff games routinely by 50 or 60 points or more. The games that will become more significant will be at many of the one-day showcase events, such as the Nike Extravaganza or Martin Luther King Dream Classic, or the many high-profile tournaments, such as the Reebok Holiday Invitational in Las Vegas. That's where the Modesto Christians of the world will still play the best large schools and it's where they will still be able to earn high state and national rankings.

Strength of schedule is and always will be one of the major criteria for compiling rankings at any level and that strength can be gained with or without playoffs because top teams, like De La Salle and Long Beach Poly in football, will seek each other out. It was only three seasons ago when the Narbonne of Harbor City girls came close to being ranked No. 1 in the state without being in the playoffs at all.

If the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section really wants to put a clamp on the Modesto Christian boys basketball program, a rule in which the Crusaders or anybody else can only travel outside the state once every three years might be just as effective as preventing them from moving up in the playoffs. As long as MC is going to places like Las Vegas or playing in events with the chance to take on a nationally-renowned power like Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, players and their parents are still going to want to sent their kids there. 

No section official should ever complain about poor sportsmanship in a Div. V playoff game, either, when a school like Modesto Christian is winning 115-40. That inequity was not created by the school's coaches or players in any way. It was born in the 1987-88 season when the CIF switched to enrollment-based playoff divisions. Enrollment has never been an indicator of basketball success and never will be.

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