The two schools that met last December for the CIF Open Division state title announced on Wednesday that they’ve agreed to play in a non-league game to open the 2021 January season at St. John Bosco of Bellflower. It’s not just the first time that two teams from the Open Division state finals are playing again to start the following season, it’s the first time for any division since the CIF restarted state championship games in 2006.
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Since high school sports in California was halted last March, there hasn’t been much to speculate about or get too excited about for upcoming games, events or schedules.
That’s why the Wednesday announcement that state/national powerhouses St. John Bosco of Bellflower and De La Salle of Concord have agreed to start the pandemic-altered 2021 season in January against each other was such welcome news.
Pending the season starting as scheduled, of course, due to the current public health crisis, the game is set for January 8 at Panish Family Stadium in Bellflower. It’s not just the first season-opening matchup between two teams that were in the CIF Open Division state finals from the previous season, it’s also the first such season-opening matchup for any division of the CIF state championships since the event was reinstated for the 2006 season. We don’t know if there might have been one in the 1920s during the early years of CIF state finals, but it’s possible.
It’s because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the unusual circumstances developed. Both teams had early season matchups scheduled for the fall 2020 season against out-of-state powerhouse programs, including De La Salle for a trip to Texas to play North Shore of Houston, which was No. 1 in some national polls last season. Head coach Jason Negro’s team was No. 1 in others, especially after a 49-28 victory over De La Salle in the CIF Open Division state championship. When those games had to be cancelled and the California season shifted to January of 2021 (Texas is having its fall season as scheduled), that meant openings on the schedule for both schools. Since both programs also prefer to have one major test in its early schedule and both had openings for the first weekend, it made sense for them to go ahead and play each other.
De La Salle has been playing teams from the Trinity League in preseason games since 1998 when the Spartans famously played Mater Dei of Santa Ana four times until 2002. The Monarchs weren’t able to end the DLS national record winning streak — which eventually reached 151 games until 2004 — but they got revenge by beating the Spartans in the 2017 and 2018 CIF Open Division state finals.
Servite of Anaheim and Orange Lutheran also have faced De La Salle in preseason matchups since then. This will be Bosco’s first, with JSerra of San Juan Capistrano and Santa Margarita of Rancho Santa Margarita being the only two from the league that have not played De La Salle.
Since 2013, DLS is 0-5 in CIF Open Division state finals against both Mater Dei and St. John Bosco. In the earlier two games vs. the Braves, DLS lost by scores of 20-14 in 2013 and 56-33 in 2016. When the Spartans and head coach Justin Alumbaugh won their two straight CIF Open Division state titles in 2014 and 2015, neither Mater Dei or St. John Bosco got that far. They were both eliminated in those seasons in the CIF Southern Section playoffs so it was Centennial of Corona that played and lost to De La Salle.
Preseason rankings or the shape of the 2021 season in California won’t change much by the two teams playing each other. It’s still Bosco and Mater Dei in the south and DLS in the north. The only results that would change that dynamic is if a different team won out in the CIF Southern Section or if the Spartans were to lose to a NorCal school north of Fresno (that hasn’t happened since 1991).
One of the first reactions upon hearing the news of the St. John Bosco-De La Salle rematch is the possibility that the two teams could face each other yet again in March in the 2021 Winter Open Division finals. CIF executive director Ron Nocetti confirmed to Cal-Hi Sports recently that if it is safe for travel that there could be an Open Division state final even though there will not be any other state championships in other divisions.
When the 2020-21 school year calendar was set by the CIF and its 10 sections, a full 10-game regular season plus section playoffs and one week for regional championship games was established. The Open Division doesn’t usually have regional games leading into a state final so its one week would be teams directly playing for a state title.
Looking at the rest of the schedules for St. John Bosco and De La Salle, the Braves also will face Alemany of Mission Hills in their second game and will actually be traveling to Northern California on Feb. 5 to play Monterey Trail of Elk Grove, a CIF Sac-Joaquin Section D1 finalist from last season while DLS will have another NorCal showdown with Folsom.
If the Braves were to continue to look like a two or three touchdown favorite over DLS and they go ahead and win in January by that kind of margin, would there be any chance that the CIF might not be too crazy about having a rematch in the Open Division in March or having another DLS-Mater Dei contest? Yes, there’s a chance but if all of the rankings and results point to that being the matchup that makes the most sense then it would happen again.
A scenario that could be one to watch is how a team like Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills (which is also playing Folsom and also might play Monterey Trail) does in its biggest games. If Oak Ridge (which also is loaded with top returning players off of last year’s SJS D1 title team) were unbeaten after the section playoffs and had comparative scores against similar competition as De La Salle, there could be an argument to pick the Trojans to play the CIFSS D1 champion at the end in the Open Division instead of another De La Salle attempt to take down a SoCal behemoth. At what point does the CIF just want to shake things up for its Open Division?
Just even being able to think about such possibilities is why it was such a breath of fresh air to hear about these two teams agreeing to play. We’ll get more into the actual matchups to watch on the field as the game date gets closer (and it appears as if it will indeed happen pending outbreaks of infections and anything else in 2020 that could go wrong). As for now, thanks to the two coaches and athletic directors Leo Lopoz and Monty McDermott for getting the deal done.
Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports