STOCKTON — By 2014, the Sac-Joaquin Section will encompass 181 high schools, 40 of which will be asked to change leagues under the realignment plan unveiled Tuesday.
But no school's future carries as much weight in this plan as Sonora.
Or, as Sonora athletic director and basketball coach Rick Francis calls it, "the school nobody wants."
Sonora, a longtime member of the Valley Oak League, has been trying to move into the Mother Lode League for several years, citing rising travel costs and a dwindling enrollment that would put it in line with the largest schools in the MLL.
Two years ago, its formal application to join the MLL was unanimously swatted down by the current MLL membership. But Tuesday, the section wielded its power and placed Sonora in the MLL effective with the 2014-15 school year.
Now, instead of trying to vote out Sonora, the rest of the MLL will have to either convince the section that Sonora is not a good fit or come up with another realignment plan to best serve the entire south section.
"We know that they don't want us because they believe we'll dominate," Francis said. "But Calaveras is a larger school than Sonora, so why doesn't Calaveras go to the VOL and we'll go to the MLL?"
The section's plan for the VOL is for current members East Union, Manteca, Sierra and Kimball to absorb Central Valley of Ceres and Patterson from the Western Athletic Conference.
Then membership of the WAC then would include current members Central Catholic, Ceres, Livingston, Los Banos and Pacheco, adding Lathrop and Weston Ranch from the VOL.
The Trans-Valley League would host current schools Escalon, Hilmar, Hughson, Orestimba, Ripon and Riverbank and would add new school Mountain House.
The Southern League takes on Modesto Christian for all sports except basketball (which moves to the Central California Conference) to join current schools Delhi, Denair, Gustine, Le Grand, Mariposa, Ripon Christian and Waterford.
Turlock Christian then would be bumped from the Southern League to the Division 7 Central California Athletic Alliance.
Sonora's destination might be the linchpin to all realignment issues in the southern part of the section. If Sonora stays in the VOL, it gives fodder to Oakdale's argument to stay in the VOL instead of moving to the Modesto Metro Conference.
By domino effect, if Oakdale stays out of the Modesto Metro Conference, the merger and reshuffling of that league with the Central California Conference might be in jeopardy, and the section's plan regarding realignment in the smaller leagues also would have to be revisited.
Or, as Escalon athletic director and football coach Mark Loureiro said, "Why don't you guys figure out where to put Sonora first and build around that?"
A spokesman from Linden, who said he was representing the entire MLL, spoke out against the addition of Sonora, citing the strength of the Wildcats' overall athletic program as well as its size. But when asked if size wouldn't first mandate that Calaveras a larger school by enrollment than Sonora be removed instead of Sonora, he had no answer.
"I think they're all worried about football, because we split pretty evenly in all the other sports," Francis said. "There are a couple of schools in there that we haven't beat in softball or wrestling for a number of years."
Modesto Christian surprise
The one detail in the plan that seemed to take everybody by surprise was the move of Modesto Christian boys' and girls' basketball to the Division 1 CCC, while moving the rest of the Crusaders' programs from the TVL to the SL.
No one could argue with the idea that the school of 190 students will be competitive on the basketball court with the district's largest schools.
"I wouldn't mind that a bit," said MC boys co-head coach Gary Porter. "It's better than us having to play Orestimba, Hilmar and teams like that, but I enjoy playing Ripon, Riverbank and Escalon. I can see where this would be a lot better for us."
The Crusaders boys and girls will be seeded in the Division 3 playoffs this year, but a move to a Division 1 league means they could compete in the playoffs at no lower than the Division 2 level.
"I like that, too, that we can't go lower than Division 2," Porter said. "Heck, we've won Division 5 enough."
The move of MC's other teams to the Southern League makes sense, said athletic director Greg Pearce, but it will have some drawbacks for the school.
"I'd much rather be in the TVL for financial reasons," Pearce said. "Gates are better and transportation costs are lower. I'm concerned with the financial hit the school would take, even though I realize the scope of our program makes the Southern League a better fit."
Hilmar football coach Frank Marques applauded the move of Crusaders' basketball out of the TVL.
"Basketball was a concern I had with Modesto Christian being in the league, and also since they don't field all the other sports it puts a damper on our scheduling," Marques said. "It gives us a lot of holes to fill. They're competitive in football, but in basketball it's not even close."
The section's idea to move MC's basketball teams into one league while transferring all other sports to another established a precedent that other schools might want to explore.
Before Tuesday's discussions were over, Riverbank football coach Jim Oliver asked the committee to consider moving the Bruins to the Southern League for football only, while Ripon Christian athletic director Joe Darretta hinted that he'd like to see his Knights' programs move upward to the TVL while keeping the football team in the Southern League.