MODESTO — There may be as many levels of achievement in high school basketball as there are teams.
For some schools, just being competitive in most games is a notable achievement and certainly nothing at which to sneer.
Others have their sights set on a winning record, or reaching the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, while some believe a league title is the ultimate goal.
For a select few teams, a section blue banner is within reach, while the truly blessed programs shoot for a win or two in the NorCal Tournament.
With tonight's girls' action marking the first full night of section playoff action, the grand pecking order will be emerging over the next few weeks.
And this year's playoffs will be grander than ever for the state's elite boys and girls.
For the first time, the State CIF has established an Open Division, which will showcase no more than the top eight boys' and girls' teams in each region regardless of enrollment.
"There's a different level of school that plays in a separate sandbox than other schools," said Brian Seymour, the State CIF Director of Championship Events. "The committee determined the teams that share the sandbox should compete against each other. These teams in the Open Division play national schedules and they all have athletes who will go on to play at Division I schools."
At first glance, the new level would appear to apply to only one program in the Stanislaus District the Modesto Christian boys. And if the Crusaders, the top-seeded team in Division 3, were to claim the section title, they'd likely be headed to the Open Division to battle teams such as Sheldon, Salesian, Bishop O'Dowd, Serra, Mitty, de la Salle, Deer Valley and Pleasant Grove.
"If we win the section, I'd like to go into the Open Division," said MC co-coach Gary Porter. "Winning championships has been great, but what we've always wanted to do is play against the best competition out there. How many championships would we have won had we stayed in Division 5? A lot, but it wouldn't have been too much fun."
The NorCal selection committee will choose the teams for the Open Division before it seeds the brackets for Divisions 1-5. The programs it chooses will not have the option of turning down the invitation.
And at that point, here's where the creation of the Open Division will have trickle-down benefits.
First, the assumption is that the Open Division teams would have been the favorites to win NorCal divisions 1-4. Taking them out of those brackets creates the opportunity for several teams to step up and claim regional titles, levelling the field.
Also, according to CIF bylaws created with the establishment of this new elite level, when a team is picked for the Open Division, its section has the right to replace that team in the NorCal playoffs with another team from the section.
Let's use the Gregori High girls as an example here. The Jaguars are the No. 3 seed in Division 2, and the four teams that play in semifinal games in Divisions 1-5 all earn berths in the NorCal playoffs. But if Gregori should get upset before reaching the semifinals, the section could place the Jags in the NorCal playoffs if another team from the section (No. 1 Sacramento, for example) is chosen to play in the Open Division.
With that many positives in the creation of an Open Division, there had to be a downside, right? In MC's case, a slight one.
Upon choosing the teams for the Open bracket, the committee will seed them one through eight, with the first two rounds played on sites chosen by the higher seed. Since Modesto Christian's highest NorCal ranking this season has been No. 6, the Crusaders have almost no chance of getting a home game in the Open Division, even after winning a section crown.
"They should go to a neutral site and play it like a tournament," Porter said. "I'd hate to think we're going on the road to play Mitty or Sheldon the first night. You're talking about the big boys there. That's the downfall, but I guess it's no different than us going to Vegas and trying to beat those teams."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek