SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — Over the last nine years as the head coach of the Cabrillo College baseball team, Bob Kittle has had numerous student-athletes from all over Santa Cruz County pour into his program.
Just last spring, Kittle had at least one player from all but one public school in the county on his roster. Bringing in the best of the best, and watching the talent and personalities from various backgrounds mesh into a powerhouse representation of the county has been one of his favorite aspects of the job.
“Santa Cruz County is unique,” Kittle said in a recent phone interview. “There’s a sense of pride in this county… It’s connected.”
Now at the reins of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League as the commissioner, Kittle is hoping that sense of pride and community can lead to a resurgence for the dwindling high school athletic league.
First on Kittle’s to-do list: continue Pat Lovell’s legacy.
Because of health issues, Lovell, 80, retired from the position in early May. He served as the league’s commissioner for nearly three decades and helped keep the SCCAL afloat through its ebbs and flows.
“Pat left some massive shoes to fill,” Kittle said. “Right off the bat, that’s the biggest challenge for me.”
Second on the list: convince county high schools to come back.
With St. Francis High leaving for the newly-formed Pacific Coast Athletic League, a multi-tiered “equity” league containing former members of the Mission Trail Athletic League and Monterey Bay League, the SCCAL is at a tipping point. The league will be down to six members — Aptos High, Harbor High, San Lorenzo Valley High, Santa Cruz High, Soquel High and Scotts Valley High — for all major sports, except for volleyball and track and field. A champion of a league with less than six teams does not receive an automatic berth to the Central Coast Section playoffs, lessening the luster of a league title to an extent.
The next realignment period is not for another two years, meaning the SCCAL cannot add new members until the 2020-21 school year. In the meantime, the SCCAL wants to put on its best face and prove it can not only survive in an era of “equity” leagues but thrive.
“It’s not going to be an easy sale,” Kittle said. “That’s a lengthy process. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
WHAT COULD’VE BEEN
In an alternate universe, the SCCAL might be a flourishing, multi-tiered league stretching from Scotts Valley to Castroville. In this universe, the league has been ripped apart by realignment at nearly every turn. Watsonville High, North Monterey County High and Monte Vista Christian have all held membership in the SCCAL in the past.
Watsonville joined the SCCAL in 1983-84 and was a member until it was voted out after the 2005-06 season.
With Live Oak High and Sobrato High leaving the now-defunct Tri-County Athletic League to compete with other schools in the Santa Clara Valley, the southern conference of the CCS was forced to rebalance its four leagues. Alisal High and Alvarez High moved into the TCAL, joining their fellow Salinas schools, Salinas High, North Salinas High and Palma High, as well as San Benito High and Gilroy High. But that move left the single-tiered MBL with only four members: Monterey High, M.V.C., N.M.C. and Seaside High.
At the time, the SCCAL had seven schools, including Watsonville, competing in every sport, with St. Francis ready to field varsity teams at the start of the ’06-07 school year. Pajaro Valley High, meanwhile, was also primed to jump into the varsity sports scene, creating a dilemma for the SCCAL and MBL: the latter needed more members, and the former had members to spare.
Then-Watsonville Athletic Director Rob Cornett said there were two proposals on the table to resolve the imbalance: (1) have Watsonville and Pajaro Valley leave to the MBL or (2) fight like hell to keep the three Pajaro Valley Unified School District schools, Watsonville, Pajaro Valley and Aptos, together. The first option was unpopular among PVUSD leadership — the administration was adamant about keeping the three schools together, especially with Pajaro Valley needing help in its infancy. The second option could only work one way: all three PVUSD schools would leave to the MBL.
“That scared a lot of people in the SCCAL,” said Cornett, still the track and field coach at Watsonville today. “I think that people knew exactly what would happen if Aptos would have left the league.”
The decision ultimately went to a vote, and Watsonville and Pajaro Valley were given the boot in preference of Aptos.
Just five years after the SCCAL had to part ways with M.V.C., the league severed one of its longest relationships in what was a lose-lose situation.
At the time, Cornett and the rest of the Watsonville administration felt like a fifth-grader spurned by their first love. More than a decade removed from the decision, there is no real animosity.
“I understand what led to everything, and I get it,” Cornett said. “I tend to hold grudges, but I got over it pretty quickly and I think the rest of our coaches did, too, because the MBL was so good for us right away. The SCCAL was great for the county, but I think we fit better with the schools in the MBL. Our kids fit better with the kids in Monterey, Seaside, Pajaro Valley, and the coaches at the other schools welcomed us in… The move actually turned out to be really good for us, and it’s only gotten better.”
Since the MBL absorbed the TCAL in 2012-13 and became a two-tiered “equity” league, the majority of Watsonville’s athletic teams have been competitive. Baseball and girls track and field won their first league titles since the early ‘90s, while the boys and girls basketball teams and the girls soccer team all halted lengthy playoff droughts.
Additionally, Watsonville’s stronger squads have benefited from the tougher competition in the upper division. Molded by the night-in-night-out challenge of playing in the MBL-Gabilan, the boys soccer team made deep runs in the CCS playoffs, playing in four straight section finals and winning two titles over the last five seasons. The softball team took its lumps during its first season in the upper division last spring, and used the lessons learned from its tough league campaign to capture the program’s first-ever section championship.
Watsonville’s softball coach Scott Wilson said the creation of the multi-tiered league has not only been a boon for his team, but other programs struggling to compete.
“I think putting this league together was the best thing for our area,” Wilson said. “There’s such a difference from school to school — size, competitive level, resources…Geographically, it’s a little bit of a stretch, but competitively it works. I think it gives everyone a chance, and that should be the most important thing.”
Of course, the two-tiered MBL was far from perfect over its six years of existence. While most of Watsonville’s teams flourished, a few were placed in tough positions. On two separate occasions, the girls volleyball team was moved up to the Gabilan division only to be pummeled in every match and finish last. That happened frequently, as the league often swapped the Pacific division champ with the last-place finisher in the Gabilan division, despite the fact that the former might be losing its biggest contributors to graduation.
With every major sport in the PCAL featuring at least three divisions of varying difficulty, those instances could be drastically reduced. But the leaders of the SCCAL still believe the “equity” system won’t bring an end to mismatches.
“No matter what league you’re in, there’s always going to be one or two teams that can’t compete,” said Aptos Athletic Director Mark Dorfman. “Every single school can’t be great. There are cycles to high school sports…If you look in football, Soquel was the dominant team in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then nobody could beat S.L.V. and then we had our run. That’s how it works…Instead of moving to another league, why can’t teams just get better?”
From 2006 to 2009, the Aptos football team went 18-22-1. The program’s lack of success during that four-season stretch was partly credited to the opening of Pajaro Valley and St. Francis, which sliced into the Mariners’ numbers. Dorfman, however, didn’t accept the Mariners’ woes as the new normal, and wasn’t about to let the depleted numbers pigeonhole the football team into mediocrity. Instead, he hired Randy Blankenship, one of the top high school football coaches in the state, and pushed for support from the administration.
Aptos finished second in the SCCAL the next season, and would go on to dominate for the next six seasons, winning 32 straight league games and a trio of CCS titles.
“I really believe it’s coaching,” Dorfman said. “We’re dominant in football but our numbers didn’t change, and our kids didn’t change either. It was Randy working together with the administration. He’s a great coach.”
Having a top-level coach at the helm of every program is the ultimate goal for every athletic director, but there are only so many quality candidates to choose from at any given moment. And for public schools who don’t have a winning history, or a built-in pool of options in decades of alumni, the list is even shorter. A subpar or “green” candidate is often the only choice for several schools not able to compete, and so the cycle continues: good coaches are hired by stable athletic programs and continue the success of the past, while programs failing to win hire whoever’s left and are stuck at the bottom of their league, struggling to convince kids to play sports.
The PCAL might not be perfect, said Pajaro Valley Athletic Director Joe Manfre, but it’s the best option for schools that have been locked into this cycle.
“Obviously, if you are the Aptos’s, Hollister’s and Salinas’s of the world it’s easy to get kids to come out and play sports,” Manfre said. “If you’re not very good at something, then kids are not going to want to come out and lose. It’s just not fun to lose… The other schools have that winning tradition. We’re still trying to build that culture throughout our school, and you can’t create a culture overnight.”
Aptos flexed its muscle during the 2017-18 school year. The Mariners won 16 of 23 possible league championships, including eight of 10 in the spring. They have won at least 10 titles in seven of the last eight school years.
“I don’t know if it’s an anomaly,” Dorfman said. “I hope this happens every year.”
Everything considered, those numbers should not be a surprise. Aptos not only has nearly 300 more students than any other school in the SCCAL, according to the 2017-18 California Basic Educational Data Systems, but its student-athlete participation was above 75 percent for the eighth straight school year.
According to Dorfman, Aptos had 76 percent of its enrolled students participating in athletics, meaning it had roughly more students playing sports (1,124) than Santa Cruz (1,062), Harbor (932), Scotts Valley (802) and S.L.V. (790) had on their campus, period.
Kittle saw nothing wrong with the Mariners’ dominance over the league, saying that they have done everything the right way and that they should be an example of what all SCCAL schools can be.
“It’s simple, everyone can’t be great,” Kittle said. “Aptos has dominated our league for some time now but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t do that.”
Kittle speaks from experience. Before taking the job at Cabrillo, he built the baseball program at Santa Cruz into a juggernaut. In 13 seasons, the Cardinals won seven league titles, qualified for the CCS playoffs 10 times and played in a trio of section finals, winning the Division III title in 2003.
“[Success] can happen with smaller numbers, but you need everyone to be behind you,” Kittle said. “The administration, the community, the parents, it’s everyone working together.”
Although Aptos walked away with several titles this school year, only a few were easily attained. One point separated Aptos and Santa Cruz in girls cross country. The girls track and field team had to evoke a league bylaw that had laid dormant for nearly 20 years in order to win the title. And the boys and girls volleyball teams were both pushed to the brink by their league rivals.
“I believe every sport, for the most part, was competitive in our league this year,” Dorfman said.
Parity at the top of the league has not been an issue, but the growing gap between the top and the bottom has raised some eyebrows and led to change.
While Aptos, Santa Cruz, Soquel, Scotts Valley and S.L.V. have exchanged turns at the top of the league in several sports, Harbor has had trouble keeping up. This past school year, the Pirates finished last in football, baseball, boys and girls basketball, girls soccer and softball. Neither of those teams have won a league championship since the early 2000s. Harbor’s girls volleyball and boys soccer teams have been yearly contenders, but their other teams have struggled fitting in with the rest of the SCCAL.
St. Francis had a similar dilemma during its membership with the league. Being a private school of a little more than 250 students, its competitiveness varied wildly from sport to sport. The Sharks’ baseball and basketball teams matched up well in the SCCAL, but every other team more or less struggled to find its footing.
While their exit from the league for football in 2013 was for fear of injury to younger players playing at the varsity level, the decision to move all sports over to the PCAL was one rooted in competitive balance.
St. Francis Principal Pat Lee, the SCCAL President last school year, said moving into an equity league made the most sense for his students. The school’s baseball and basketball teams would find a new challenge in the PCAL’s upper divisions, while other programs would finally be playing against teams more their speed.
“It just offers so much more than a single-tiered league can,” Lee said. “I think the question I kept coming back to was this: what’s best for our kids?”
A MATTER OF MILES
The farthest the Watsonville baseball team traveled for a league game this spring was Seaside. Next spring the Wildcatz will have to play in Pacific Grove, Carmel, Soledad and King City.
That’s one of several nightmarish travel scenarios the PCAL will feature for the foreseeable future.
In a vacuum, Watsonville to King City is roughly an hour-and-fifteen-minute drive. Now place any member of the current SCCAL into that scenario, account for the bottleneck traffic of Highway 1 and a two-hour trek doesn’t seem out of the question.
For a Friday night football game, the once-a-week trip is bearable. But making an hour-plus journey two or three times a week for a 4 p.m. baseball or softball game, means student-athletes would have to miss an excessive amount of school in order to play a sport.
“That’s as much travel as the junior college conferences,” Kittle said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
PCAL commissioner Tim McCarthy admitted that the extended travel is an issue, but said it is not a result of the new league’s creation. The southern conference of the CCS, McCarthy said, has and will always have issues with travel due to its area of coverage. There is no real solution for schools on the outskirts of the conference, like King City and Scotts Valley.
“Everyone understands that it’s a big issue and the concerns from the SCCAL are valid, but this has been happening already,” McCarthy said. “King City has been traveling to Anzar and Oakwood for games for some time. I don’t think, overall, teams are going to travel more than they already are.”
McCarthy said travel was taken into consideration when balancing the divisions for the upcoming school year. It, however, did not take precedence over competitive level, enrollment size and other factors that directly affect the product on the field, court, links or pool.
“Our goal is to make sure the PCAL, in its current form, works for the kids,” McCarthy said. “Where it goes from here, we’ll see.”
The ousting of the Wildcatz in ’06 neutered two celebrated and historic SCCAL football rivalries. Watsonville and Santa Cruz had battled for nearly a century before the former was sent packing, and the “Black and Blue Bowl” between Watsonville and Aptos was one of largest county attractions since its inception in the early ‘80s. Watsonville and Santa Cruz still play one another in the preseason, albeit to much smaller crowds and hoopla, but the Watsonville-Aptos rivalry was axed after their meeting in 2014.
“It’s really sad to see these things die,” Dorfman said. “I remember the ‘Black and Blue Bowl’ used to be a huge game. It was big for the community. It brought the two cities together.”
While some see the PCAL as a blessing for student-athletes and competition, others see it as the end of what makes high school sports special: tradition, rivalries and community.
With the SCCAL football teams split up in different divisions of the PCAL this fall, several county rivalries have either been halted or moved up into unusual spots. Santa Cruz and Harbor won’t be playing the “Shell Game,” Scotts Valley and S.L.V. have also postponed their annual “Battle of the Valleys” and the “Stump Game” between Soquel and Santa Cruz will be played in the preseason.
Another big blow to Kittle’s plan to reunite the county this fall: Pajaro Valley, St. Francis, Watsonville and M.V.C. leaving the annual SCCAL Football Jamboree in favor of their own four-team Apple City Jamboree.
“These games, these relationships are what make the county special,” Kittle said. “Losing these games, it’s painful to our league…it’s not only about maintaining what we have now, but bringing some of the old things back and building on top of that.”
Kittle will have to find new fundraising paths for the SCCAL, and he has a few ideas already gaining ground — implementing an end-of-season league tournament for every sport, being one of them. But his biggest challenge as commissioner might be uniting a county that seems to have forgotten it was ever connected.
Watsonville and Santa Cruz were considered sister schools at one time, but the 19 miles that separates the oldest schools in the county is no longer a barren stretch of land. The opening of Soquel, Harbor and Aptos in the ‘60s created some distance between the programs, and the addition of S.L.V., Scotts Valley, M.V.C., St. Francis and Pajaro Valley has somewhat splintered the county into smaller communities.
There are plenty of people around the county that still hold fond memories of the old days, but the majority of the student-athletes playing the games today don’t. Kittle and the leaders of the SCCAL want to change that.
In an effort to unite the remaining six schools, the SCCAL is creating the Pat Lovell Award, a rotating trophy that will be awarded to the school with the most points at the end of each school year.
The trophy, Kittle said, will be a nice start of what will be a gigantic endeavor to bring the county together through tradition and history.
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Kittle said. “We have to make sure that everyone’s pulling the cart in the same direction, and I think if other schools see that, they’ll want to jump back in.”