Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - September 30, 2011

Coaches feel aced by new playoff format

Three singles, three doubles could replace current system for the section playoffs

by Keith Peters

It was less than two years ago when the Menlo School and Saratoga boys' tennis teams were locked in a battle for the 2010 Central Coast Section team title. Menlo senior Jamin Ball rallied from a first-set loss to pull out a 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 6-1 victory over John Lamble and lift the Knights to a thrilling 4-3 victory.

That scenario may never happen again, if section athletic directors, principals and commissioners continue to push through a new postseason playoff format that falls in line with what Southern California schools are already using.

"I think it's a done deal," said Bill Shine, who coaches the Menlo boys' and girls' teams. "I don't like it."

The new format, which would be used only in the section playoffs, would involve three singles players (instead of four) plus three doubles teams. The singles players and doubles teams of opposing schools would play one set against each other instead of the normal best of three.

A group of 25-30 athletic directors from the CCS voted on the new format Tuesday and approved it. Ten league commissioners took a similar vote Thursday. An executive committee will do the same on Tuesday, with the CCS Board of Managers making a crucial vote on Oct. 19.

By that time, as Shine said, it could be a done deal. The new format could be installed as early as the girls' CCS playoffs this November. The boys then would have it next May and leagues could implement the new system, as well.

Bill Scott, the girls' tennis coach at Salinas High, reportedly is behind the movement. He formerly coached in Southern California and reportedly has advocated the new format in order to eliminate stacking by coaches.

Stacking is where coaches move around players to better suit their chances of victory, instead of playing them where they belong. Ironically, this new format actually encourages stacking.

"He (Scott) says it prevents stacking," Shine said Wednesday while watching his team fall at undefeated Monta Vista, 6-1, in nonleague action. "That's an adult problem, not a kid problem. This will make it harder to coach. What can you tell them in one set?"

Monta Vista coach Gene Fortino said the new format will be "like going from NFL rules to Canadian or Arena League football rules."

The new format could be that goofy.

A No. 1 singles player, for example, would play one set and then have to wait until the opposing No. 2 player is finished. Once that match is complete, the No. 1 might have to wait again until facing the opposition's No. 3. The same goes for doubles.

Shine and Fortino both see potential nightmares in the new format, starting with the possibility of marathon matches.

While section tennis coaches were first told of a possible move toward the new playoff format at last spring's postseason meeting, they likely had no idea things would move so fast.

"How did it get to this point without the coaches voting on it," said Shine, who feels like he and others have been blindsided by how quickly the new format is moving towards approval. "It's a little strange because it usually goes through different channels.

"They're trying to get a state tournament, which is great, but . . . we've had no input in it, and that's a little disappointing."

Howard Jensen, who ran the CCS tennis playoffs for years before retiring this fall, said most sports are headed toward a state playoff. Tennis and swimming are among those still waiting.

However, Jensen said, that doesn't make it right for all sports.

"I don't think it's a good thing," Jensen said of the tennis format, "unless everyone's behind it."

Clearly, not everyone is.

Shine sees teams having to jump back and forth between the current format and the new one. Teams would use the four-singles, three-doubles format for league play, switch to 3-and-3 for CCS, back to 4-3 for NorCals and then back to 3-and-3 for state.

"It completely changes the way you coach, since you can move your lineup around," Shine said of the new format.

Instead of matching the best players at each position, coaches will become chess players while moving players around to where they can be most effective — in other words, stacking.

"It's just going to be different," Shine said. "Clearly, it changes the coaching."

It also could change how the best players look at high school tennis, especially if the leagues adopt the new format, as well.

"Why should they waste their afternoons," said Shine, noting that a No. 1 singles player now would have to play an inferior No. 2 and 3, likely results in non-competitive 6-0 results.

Over the years, some local high school teams have lost players due to seemingly lack of competition at this level. The best players are primed for getting college scholarships and the USTA circuit may end up providing tougher competition. This new format could make that decision easier.

Plus, a starting player on each team will be dropped in the new format.

"Now you encourage fewer players to be on your team," Shine said. "And the drama of seeing that third set develop, seeing a Jamin Ball play a John Lamble, is gone. That's what it's all about.

"There are certain things us coaches need to know about this format and it could take a couple of years," Shine said. "This is a huge deal. But, I think it's already done."

While Shine and Fortino discussed the potential headaches of the new format, the host Matadors were making a statement of their own on the courts during a hot Wednesday afternoon as they defeated the Knights for a second time this season.

Saratoga and Monta Vista are now the teams to beat in the CCS. Those teams have met in the section finals the past two years with the Falcons winning both times. Unless something drastic changes in the next month, the same squads should be battling it out once again for section honors.

This, of course, is not good news for Menlo, which was knocked out of the CCS team tournament by Monta Vista in the semifinals last season. The Knights may be one of the top four teams in the CCS, but all that gets you is a pat on the back.

"The match was very close, but not the score," said Shine. "It was close, but they won all the three-set matches. They're just a little more experienced than we are."

While the Knights have the potential to be one of the school's best teams, it's also one of the youngest. Kacie Madeira is the only senior on a squad that has three starting juniors, five starting sophomores and two starting freshmen.

That inexperience may have shown up Wednesday as junior Giannina Ong won her first set at No. 1 singles, but lost the next two; sophomore Christine Eliazo lost a three-setter and freshman Liz Yao dropped a first-set tiebreaker during a three-set loss at No. 4 singles. Sophomore Sarah Schinasi and freshman Helena Ong also lost a three-setter at No. 3 doubles after winning the opening set.

"I was pleased with the effort," said Shine, "(but) we've got work to do."

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