Kelly Sopak feels confident his Miramonte High girls basketball team can make a second consecutive Northern California regional final.
But as one of eight teams selected to the inaugural Open Division playoffs, the path there will be much more difficult this time around. Four East Bay girls teams will complete in the ultracompetitive division.
First-round action gets under way Friday night with St. Mary's of Berkeley hosting Sacramento and Bishop O'Dowd playing Brookside Christian-Stockton at Chabot College.
Miramonte travels to Delta College to face St. Mary's-Stockton in an intriguing matchup between two teams with similar fast-paced styles.
While there are sure to be great games throughout the playoffs, the implementation of the new system that takes the state's top teams and puts them all together in the same bracket hasn't been without controversy.
Sopak wasn't surprised that his team was in the field, but ending up with the No. 7 seed left him a bit stunned. He figured his team's resume would likely be good enough to earn a first-round home game.
"Our seed didn't reflect what we did on the court. We had proved on the court where we should be seeded and that was pushed to the side for whatever rationale someone had," Sopak said. "Teams should be rewarded or not rewarded according to their record and who they played and beat."
Miramonte (27-2) owns a win over No. 6 Archbishop Mitty-San Jose, and its only losses were to Bishop O'Dowd and Windward-Los Angeles -- the top seeds in the NorCal and SoCal Open divisions.
North Coast Section Commissioner Gil Lemmon and Brian Seymour, the CIF's Director of Championship events, said the Open Division was not a pure seeding from top to bottom.
"They were looking at the best configuration for the good of the tournament," Seymour said. "They came to the conclusion that (the bracket) we have was the best way."
Why Northern California moved the maximum eight teams to the Open Division while the deeper Southern California region sent just six has also stirred debate.
NARROW GAP FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: The Open Division on the boys side figures to have a field of seven teams that are all capable of beating each other on any given night.
The best example of that? No. 7 seed Newark Memorial -- the last team in the field -- lost to top-seeded Salesian by only a point, 55-54, in the semifinals of the Gridley Invitational on Dec. 7.
That's enough to prove that choosing a prohibitive favorite in the open is a tough task. On paper, though, the favorite role has to belong to the Pride, which owns wins over a pair of other teams in the Open Division. Salesian beat No. 2 Archbishop Mitty-San Jose 65-44 on Dec. 22 and handled No. 4 Sheldon-Sacramento 69-60 on Feb. 2.
Among the more surprising aspects is that no teams from the North Coast Section's Division I -- typically the toughest section playoff division in Northern California -- made the open. De La Salle was the lone eligible team, but lost in the NCS semifinals to eventual champion Deer Valley.
The Spartans could've still been selected, but instead remained in their enrollment-based Division I. Deer Valley has a team capable of competing, but would've needed to opt in to the open because it didn't meet the qualifying criteria. The Wolverines chose not to and are the NorCal favorites in Division I. They host rival Freedom on Saturday in a NorCal quarterfinal.
There's no questioning the inaugural Open Division results in the weakening of the other divisions, which could make it tougher for NorCal to produce teams capable of beating Southern California foes in the state title game.
But it has created opportunity for new teams -- particularly public schools -- to compete for NorCal titles.
Dublin is one of those. Without the open, the Gaels would've been the No. 4 seed and battling Mitty, Serra-San Mateo and Newark Memorial in Division II. But with those three powers moved to the open, Dublin is the No. 1 seed, and hosts El Camino-South San Francisco on Saturday in search of its first NorCal win in school history.
"I was pretty shocked," Dublin coach Tom Costello said of his reaction to seeing the brackets. "I was a little surprised Serra got bumped, but they're good."
El Cerrito also has a shot in Division III as the No. 2 seed, with Bishop O'Dowd moved to the open. Gauchos coach Michael Booker said he would've liked another crack at the Dragons, but is also ready to try to make a deep run. El Cerrito will get a chance to try to avenge an early-season loss when it faces Campolindo on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
Staff writer Jimmy Durkin contributed to this notebook.