San Francisco's WCAL schools dreaming of state titles thanks to new Open Division

Matt Zheng/APKhalil James and SHC have a shot to go all the way to the Division III state title game.

Matt Zheng/APKhalil James and SHC have a shot to go all the way to the Division III state title game.

The advent of the California Interscholastic Federation’s new Open Division state playoff system in boys’ and girls’ basketball has essentially accomplished two things.

It has created two monster tournaments, featuring the best teams in the state, while making several of the enrollment-division tournaments up for grabs, and no schools have benefited more than The City’s West Catholic Athletic League members.

The three city Catholic schools have been thrusted from being fringe contenders to outright favorites.

All four of The City’s WCAL representatives in the tournament — the Sacred Heart Cathedral boys and girls (Division III), St. Ignatius girls (Division III) and Riordan boys (Division IV) — have either No. 1 or No. 2 seeds and first-round byes.

None were Central Coast Section champions, but got automatic bids to NorCals based on being selected for the section’s Open Division.

With powerhouse Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland pushed up to the Open Division in both boys and girls, Sacred Heart Cathedral is the top seed in both Division III brackets and the St. Ignatius girls are seeded at No. 2.

The Sacred Heart boys, just a year removed from a loss in the Division III state championship game, are now in a position to return to Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento despite losing their two best players from last season’s team.

“This is where we are and we still gotta go out and win,” Sacred Heart boys’ coach Darrell Barbour said. “No matter who the other team is, our job is to go out and win. That’s the nature of this game and that’s what I love about it.”

Without the Bay Area’s top boys’ team — Salesian of Richmond — in the Division IV boys’ bracket, Riordan is all but assured a spot in the NorCal title game and has the No. 2 seed. Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa is the bracket’s top seed and lost to Salesian 65-34 in the North Coast Section Division IV championship game Saturday.

“It’s a strange feeling,” Riordan boys’ coach Rich Buckner said. “After we began 1-5 in league just a few weeks ago, to go from there to now, being talked about in the same breath as Cardinal Newman is something.”

Cardinal Newman’s 29-3 record far exceeds Riordan’s 18-11, mark, but the difference in competition is stark. Riordan went 7-7 in the WCAL, while Cardinal Newman romped the North Bay League all season, and many feel the Crusaders are the favorite in the bracket.

Still, at this level of play, no coach will be taking an opponent lightly.

“The way they rank these things now. we’re going to play Vanden or Encinal, and I’ve seen Encinal — they’re a good team,” St. Ignatius girls’ coach Mike Mulkerrins said. “You still have to go on the court and play the games. These are all good teams and when we [played] O’Dowd [in 2011], the pressure was on them. Now the pressure is now on us.

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