CUSD football teams realigned in CIF-SS overhaul

By Greg Mellen

The dust has settled on the CIF-Southern Section and State football playoffs, and schools can now begin to examine a new and radically altered landscape for the sport.

Principals from Orange County schools approved a proposal in May 2023 to reconfigure high school football leagues beginning in 2024 in an effort to provide competitive equity.

Greg Kemp, a Coordinator II for Athletics and Academics, said the move was made to help schools that have struggled against larger, traditional powerhouse teams over the years.

“It helps schools (that) have just not done well and are trapped in certain leagues,” he said. “In general it will help with competitive advantage. Every game will be more competitive.”

In so doing, the CIF Southern Section Council, which affirmed the plan in October, has splintered existing leagues and altered rivalries that have thrived for decades. The six Capistrano Unified School District high school teams have all been moved to different leagues with new competition.

Many schools have been reassigned to leagues with schools with which they have never shared league membership, or much else.

For years, the CIF has struggled with playoff pairings and seedings, first discarding geographic pairings and dividing teams into ever-changing brackets in attempts to allow competitive equity and multiple chances for schools large and small to vie for championships. The new proposal takes that effort down to the league levels.

With the exception of the Trinity League, which remains unchanged, football teams will be divided into 12 leagues of between four and six teams. Schools will be grouped based on their records over the past two years and rankings by CalPreps, a sports ratings service subscribed to by state schools. The schools will then be placed in leagues with teams with similar rankings, regardless of geography.

Previously, five of the six CUSD high school football teams, excluding Dana Hills, played in the Sea View and South Coast leagues. Now they are in four as-yet-unnamed leagues.

As Kemp mentioned, the move breaks up leagues where certain teams have dominated and others have languished.

In the South Coast league, for example, San Clemente and Mission Viejo have held a hammerlock on the league title, passing the title back and forth in recent years. Meanwhile, Tesoro and Capistrano Valley have struggled to achieve league success.

Last year, Capistrano Valley was 0-3 in league, giving up 41 points per game. However, outside of the league, the Cougars were 7-0 entering league play, advanced to the second round of the CIF playoffs, and finished 8-4 overall.

Next year, San Clemente and Mission Viejo will have to contend with Los Alamitos (9-3 and No. 10 in the MaxPreps Southern Section rankings) and Huntington Beach school Edison, both from the Sunset League.

CUSD’s teams are in leagues as follows:

  • Tesoro, San Juan Hills, Yorba Linda, Corona del Mar, Villa Park, Newport Harbor
  • Capistrano Valley, Western, Trabuco Hills, Cypress, El Modena, Tustin
  • Aliso Niguel, Dana Hills, Laguna Beach, Orange, Fountain Valley, Northwood

Some rivalries will continue, but will have to be staged during the non-league portion of a team’s schedule.

About rivalries, Kemp said, “It definitely shifts some of that away.”

Not all rivalries depend on league affiliations. Despite being in different leagues, Tesoro and San Juan Hills have had a spirited rivalry for the past decade, with Tesoro enjoying a 6-4 advantage, with four games decided by a field goal or less.

To Kemp, the competitive balance the reconfiguring of football will bring will outweigh the loss of some rivalry games, in part by giving hope to traditionally downtrodden teams.

“It gives teams that always struggle the chance to be competitive and to have that championship run,” Kemp said.

And title runs matter.

“Success brings people out,” Kemp said. “We hope it will bring better numbers out for football participation.”

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