The Yuma Gila Ridge football team lost its first five games this season by a combined score of 156-16. In the latest MaxPreps power rankings it’s ranked 35th among 43 teams in Division II.
Does that sound like a team that should make the playoffs? Yet if Gila Ridge wins its final three games against Yuma, Yuma Cibola and Lake Havasu, it will earn the automatic berth as the Division II, Section IV champion.
And I’m perfectly fine with that.
This is the time of year when the high school football elitists cry foul. Their contention: The Arizona Interscholastic Association should do away with automatic bids, thus clearing the way for the top 16 teams to make the playoffs. That way, they argue, a more deserving club won’t get knocked out of the postseason by a team that doesn’t deserve to be there.
Like, say, Gila Ridge.
In one respect, I understand the argument. The playoffs are no place for charity. The fairest way to determine a state champion is to let the best 16 teams duke it out. Is it reasonable that Marana Mountain View, currently seeded 16th in Division II, might not make the cut when it’s so obviously superior to whoever winds up the Section IV champion?
But I think that slight is far more preferable than kids knowing – in August, mind you – that no matter how hard they work or how much they improve they’re on a hopeless crusade. Let’s be honest: If there were no automatic bids for section champions, none of the teams in Section IV – Cibola, Yuma Kofa, Yuma, Gila Ridge, San Luis or Lake Havasu – would ever make the postseason.
If you were a parent of one of the kids on those teams, how would that make you feel?
“The thing about it is, people, administrators and all the big-time programs lose sight of the fact football is played for the kids and played for the community,” said Gila Ridge coach Tom Hurt. “When you just go with power points as the solution to go to the playoffs, it’s a good thing for big timers but it doesn’t do anything for the small communities just trying to have programs. If you’re in a weak region, you should have the opportunity to play for something.”
The argument for/against automatic bids for section champions isn’t an issue in Division I. The top teams in the five sections – Chandler, Avondale Westview, Mesa Desert Ridge, Phoenix Mountain Pointe and Phoenix Horizon – are ranked among the top six in the power rankings. Plus, with only 29 teams in Division I and 11 at-large bids available, there should be no whining from the team ranked No. 17.
But it is a bouquet of thorns in Division II because of the make-up of Section IV. Currently, the highest-ranked team is Lake Havasu at No. 28. You can bet that when the final regular-season rankings are released, the team that’s left out because of the Section IV champ’s automatic bid will be upset.
Never mind the fact that school in all likelihood will have more money, better facilities and a far greater chance to succeed than any of the Yuma-area schools.
“I think it’s great for us in Yuma,” Hurt said. “We don’t have the money or the resources to compete at the level they compete at in Phoenix. It’s really a positive thing that if you win your section you get to go the playoffs.”
Here’s the thing to remember: High school sports shouldn’t reward only the powerful. Coaches and kids in Yuma shouldn’t be excluded from the playoffs because they’re handcuffed by the socio-economic realities of the area they live in. Do that, and the disadvantaged are eliminated simply because they’re the disadvantaged.
I wouldn’t call that unfair. I’d call it unjust.
Reach Bordow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-7996. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow