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It’s time for a game of musical leagues

Every four years, the Sac-Joaquin Section reshuffles the deck and moves a handful of teams into new athletic conferences, hoping to create better competitive balance. The first meeting was held on Jan. 17, when the section presented to schools its master plan for the new-look leagues.

I’ve been covering high school sports in the region since I was 19 years old, some 37 years ago. In all that time, I’ve never seen coaches, athletic directors or administrators get as worked up as they do when it’s time to realign the leagues.

It’s like moving day, election day, and somebody’s wedding day all rolled into one.

The second meeting is slated for Tuesday at 9 a.m. at The Reserve at Spanos Park in Stockton. Ultimately, there will be five meetings before the realignment plan — that will take effect prior to the 2024-25 school year — is finalized.

Tuesday’s meeting is when things will really start to get interesting. All it takes is one school to submit a new proposal to ignite the back-room wheeling and dealing.

Earlier this week, I was simultaneously texting with four ADs, a coach, and an official from the section office. After creating a proposal of my own, I asked them to check my math. I wanted to know if I’d overlooked something obvious, or had created something ridiculous. While none of them were in complete agreement with my proposal, they seemed to agree that it was a reasoned attempt to address the situation.

I have the advantage of not having a dog in the fight, not tied to one particular school. I tried to consider transportation costs, rivalries, multi-school districts, and more. Ultimately, it came down to one factor above all others — competitive equity.

Realignment is like a game of Jenga. One move has implications for several moves down the line.

Chances are, after I see some of the plans presented Tuesday, I’ll change my mind a time or two and make tweaks to my plan.

My complete proposal accompanies this story. For now, however, I’m just going to delve into four leagues: Central California Athletic League, Trans-Valley League, Southern League and Central California Athletic Alliance.

CCAL — The section’s first proposal suggested no changes to the 5-year-old league, which was created when the old Central California Conference was split up after the 2017-18 season.

The section wants to ship Manteca to the Stockton-based Tri-City Athletic League, but Manteca wants no part of that. The CCAL should open its arms to not only Manteca, but fellow Valley Oak League teams Oakdale and Central Catholic, too, while sending Modesto to the Valley Oak League, where it will be more competitive.

This creates a rugged eight-team league consisting of Turlock, Pitman, Central Catholic, Oakdale, Manteca, Downey, Enochs and Gregori. Wow!

According to one source, the CCAL is adamant about not expanding or contracting — and that’s wholly understandable — but it’s really the only logical landing place for the VOL refugees, who have outgrown that conference.

If I were a high school athlete, this is the type of league I’d want to compete in. The challenge would appeal to me.

TVL — Selfishly, I want the section’s TVL proposal (Hilmar, Hughson, Escalon, Ripon, Ripon Christian, Orestimba, Sonora) to stand, just because it would cement the league’s reputation as the toughest small-school football conference in the state. Bar none. It might even be a tougher volleyball league, now that I think about it.

But it’s no secret that Orestimba wants nothing to do with the TVL. Ripon Christian isn’t really enthused, either. It’s a shame, because I believe both can compete there. Nevertheless, in deference to Orestimba’s travel burden — 1-hour, 45-minute trips to Sonora would be rough — I sent the Warriors to the Western Athletic Conference. But that’s it. Ripon Christian stays, while current TVL members Modesto Christian, Livingston and Riverbank depart.

SL — Nothing too drastic here. Orestimba, which has outgrown the SL, and Waterford turn in their keys, and Stone Ridge Christian moves in. Modesto Christian might need to come in, too.

I know what you’re thinking, but before you get your knickers in a knot, MC’s powerful basketball team would compete in the TCAL. Only the Crusaders’ remaining programs would compete in the Southern League. Right now, I have Modesto Christian in the CCAA, but their football team might be too good for that league. The Southern League might be the right fit competitively, but the travel would be brutal.

CCAA — Turlock Christian, which has designs on playing eight-man football next season, remains here and welcomes Modesto Christian and River Islands High in Lathrop, which opened last fall as a member of the VOL, with freshmen only.

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