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Southern Athletic League adds three schools, releases four others
Denair, Hughson to compete against each other
Denair football
When (or if) Denair High football takes the field this spring as scheduled by the Southern Athletic League, the Coyotes will be facing off against new teams including Hughson, Riverbank and Modesto Christian (Journal file photo).

The Sac-Joaquin Section’s Southern Athletic League will look a bit different during the shortened high school sports season as it welcomes new teams amid realignments caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

As seen in the Valley Oak League just up Highway 99, which recently added Escalon, Ripon and Ripon Christian, the SAL recently voted this week to add Hughson, Riverbank and Modesto Christian from the Trans Valley League. Additionally, SAL voted to release Ripon Christian, Gustine, Delhi and Le Grand from the league.

The three TVL teams will compete alongside Denair, Mariposa, Orestimba and Waterford when SAL competition begins on Feb. 15, as dictated by the league’s schedule which was also released this week. The SJS shake ups come as leagues attempt to help high schools play other teams located in the same county as them due to California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy tier system, which could cause some sports to be prohibited in one county while allowed in another.

“The thinking behind it is because there’s no guarantee that adjacent counties to each other will all be in the same tier,” said Waterford Athletic Director Joshua Whitfield, who is stepping in for SAL commissioner Frank Ferreira during a leave of absence. “What we’re seeing is a lot of the leagues for small schools becoming fractured because they’re spread out more geographically.”

The four schools released from SAL play will attempt to compete within their own respective counties, Whitfield said, and must be accepted through a vote by the league they’re hoping to join. Similar to the schedule released by the Central California Athletic League on Tuesday, SAL practices kicked off with three purple tier sports this week: cross country, co-ed golf and co-ed tennis as part of Season One.

Season Two will include two orange tier sports, football and girls volleyball, long with softball, baseball and cheer, which are all red tier sports. Season Two games will begin March 15. Season Three in the SAL will include boys and girls soccer (orange), boys and girls basketball (yellow), boys and girls wrestling (yellow) and track (purple).

Although the three TVL teams coming into the Division VI SAL are Division V, Whitfield believes the jump in competition isn’t significant enough to worry about. Besides, he said, the kids just want to be back on the field — they don’t care who it’s against. With no playoffs or championships to worry about due to COVID, the addition of the three larger schools shouldn’t make a difference to the teams, he said. 

“Priority number one is to get kids back on the playing field in a safe manner, and I think we’ve learned enough in the last year to accomplish that. We’ve seen successes and failures from other states who implemented a quicker return than California,” Whitfield said. “I think it’s critically important that we have some semblance of a season this year so we can prove to the state government that we can do this safely and efficiently, and it won’t be the end of the world. That way, we can go back to a sense of normalcy hopefully this next academic year.”