SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The Pajaro Valley High football team was a bit envious of Harbor High, Soquel High, Santa Cruz High and St. Francis High when the five schools had the opportunity to jump ship from the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League to a restructured Mission Trail Athletic League with a “C”-rated division.
Next year, that jealousy will be gone.
The Mission Trail Athletic League and Monterey Bay League will merge into a 33-school super league, the largest in the Central Coast Section, dubbed the Pacific Coast Athletic League starting in the 2018-19 school year.
The PCAL will be a four-tiered league with a Gabilan, Mission, Cypress and Santa Lucia division. If a fifth division is necessary for any sport it will be called the Arroyo division. They are expected to be broken into one “A”-rated division, two “B”-rated divisions and one “C”-rated division.
The Central Coast Section Southern Conference committee approved the move in March by a 31-3 vote. Tim McCarthy, the former commissioner of the MTAL and MBL who will take on the same role in the PCAL, officially announced the decision on Saturday.
“I really think that this is not only the best thing for the schools but more importantly it’s what we all thought was best for the kids,” McCarthy said.
The move had been in the works for the last few years, according to McCarthy. The MTAL had previously reached out to the MBL about a possible merger but talks cooled before anything could be solidified. This time around, a push from CCS commissioner Duane Morgan led to a mutual agreement from nearly all teams in both leagues.
The merger will bring an end to the two historic athletic leagues, which have both been in service for at least 50 years. The MBL took in the Tri-County Athletic League and became a two-tiered equity league in 2012. The MTAL, meanwhile, was one of the few remaining single-tiered leagues left in the CCS.
McCarthy was sad to see the end of an era but said it was the right move.
“I really believe the schools made the right decision here,” McCarthy said.
The move will bring in all 31 schools currently in the MBL and MTAL. St. Francis High, currently a member of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League, and Rancho San Juan High, a new high school in Salinas that is set to open its doors next school year, will join the league, too.
All 33 schools are locked into a two-year contract with the PCAL.
Other than St. Francis, the SCCAL is sticking around for every sport except football. The SCCAL disbanded for football in December and the five aforementioned teams were welcomed in by the MTAL, which became a two-tiered league for the sport this fall. Aptos High, meanwhile, joined the MBL’s Gabilan division. All six Santa Cruz County football programs will compete in the PCAL for the upcoming school year.
Pajaro Valley Athletic Director Joe Manfre said the merger would not only be a boon for the Grizzlies’ football program but for all the school’s athletic teams.
“We can come out in every sport next year and say, ‘we have a legitimate chance to win a league title,’” Manfre said. “That’s a big thing for the kids. It’ll hopefully get participation up across the board and that’s what we want.”
In its 12 years as a varsity program, the Pajaro Valley football team has struggled to find success in the MBL, never winning more than two league games during the MBL’s time as a single tiered and two-tiered league. As a result, Pajaro Valley, a school roughly the same size as its Pajaro Valley Unified School District sister school Aptos, has constantly struggled with numbers. While the lack of a proper home field has also hampered the football team’s success, being moved into a “C”-rated division figures to be a game changer for the developing program.
“I think it’s a good thing for every school,” Manfre said. “I know we’re happy with it but it makes sense for everyone. It gives everyone a chance.”
Across town, St. Francis’ football program is already benefiting from an equity league after moving into the MTAL during the offseason. Entering Friday night, the Sharks, who have never won a league championship in the sport, were leading the MTAL-Coastal division.
St. Francis head coach John Ausman said entering the new league did energize his kids and instilled a sense of confidence but he’s also been blessed with a talented group of athletes that have bought into the program. The league can only do so much. The kids are still the ultimate determinant of whether a program will be successful or not.
“The league’s great because it seemed like every team felt confident about their ability to compete in the league this year,” Ausman said, “but I think the best part about it is being able to compete against local teams.”
That, however, could be one of the casualties in the merger. Classic rivalry games like the Belgard Kup Game, usually reserved for the final week of the regular season, could lose some of their luster with teams competing in different divisions or they could eventually be completely axed.
Monterey High and Seaside High, competing in different divisions of the MBL, have continued their rivalry by moving the annual football game into the preseason. Most teams in the same situation have followed suit.
“It’s not perfect but it gives the best chance for competition for all schools,” Manfre said. “Just like in life, you’re not going to make everyone happy but I think this is the best move we could’ve made.”
The extended travel, too, was one of the major concerns during the initial talks between the two leagues. It was also a big reason why the SCCAL decided to not join the PCAL for all sports, according to McCarthy.
“It’s one thing to go from Scotts Valley High to King City High or vise versa for one Friday during the season but it’s another thing to do it two or three times a week for baseball, basketball or softball,” McCarthy said. “That would’ve been too tough on the kids.”
Another concern that arose during talks was the discrepancy of enrollment between schools. Would it be OK to move up a school the size of Scotts Valley, which has a little less than 800 students, into a division with the likes of San Benito High and Salinas High, both of which have more than 2,500 students?
Ausman said that was definitely a concern for St. Francis, which has roughly 250 kids in its student body every school year, but explained that those decisions should be a case-to-case basis. Things like numbers in the junior varsity and freshman levels and a program’s history of success, among other things, would have to be factored into the decision-making process.
“Yeah, we have 250 kids but at the end of the day if we can go up to a division and compete then we should be there,” Ausman said. “You have to take everything into account.”
Those issues have plagued the MBL since its inception. Every season the champion of the Pacific division has always been pulled up to the Gabilan despite graduating several starters that were the driving force behind the team’s success. This year was no different, as Seaside made the jump into the Gabilan division even though it lost four all-league selections, including the Pacific division’s M.V.P. Malik Jeter and Offensive Player of the Year Keishawn Robinson.
Unsurprisingly, the Spartans are 2-3 in Gabilan division play and have been blown out by Aptos, Salinas and San Benito.
Yet the competitive balance in the restructured MTAL has been overwhelmingly even this football season. In the Mission division, three teams entered Friday night still in the hunt for the league championship and in the Coastal division another trio of programs were also still alive.
“And it will be even more balanced next year,” McCarthy said. “We figure the more teams we have in the mix, the better chance we have at getting the programs into more competitive games and that’s the ultimate goal: to let the kids compete and have fun.”