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Last winter, the move was approved.

Last fall, the move was official.

The majority of the area high school sports programs have moved from the CIF Southern Section to the Central Section.

The 2018-19 school year marks the first for the Central Section newcomers. The move, and the effect it has had on area sports programs, is the top Times sports story of 2018, as selected by the Times sports staff.

By and large, reaction among area coaches to the move just prior to it seemed to be, "We'll see what happens."

What happened quickly was an earlier start to the fall season than is usual, ostensibly so all 10 CIF sections in the state could start their respective fall campaigns at the same time.

Some area teams began scrimmaging before the first day of school, and multiple early-season girls tennis matches were postponed or canceled because squads didn't have enough players to field a team at the time.

Gradually, as the fall sports campaign moved along, the Central Section newcomers seemed to settle in.

Squads that would not have made the playoffs in 2018 had they stayed in the Southern Section reaped the benefits of the Central Section system in which any squad in a team sport that does not win a league championship can petition to get into the playoffs.

In several leagues, all but the last-place team in the league successfully petitioned to get into the playoffs. Or, at least, they could have if they had wanted to. A few teams that ostensibly could have gone to the post-season opted out.

Every area cross country team was guaranteed a spot in the Central Section Finals if they wanted to go.

Several area teams made deep playoff runs in their first year in their new section, but none won divisional championships. The Righetti football and boys water polo teams, along with the Arroyo Grande girls tennis and girls water polo teams, all lost in the finals.

The Arroyo Grande girls water polo team was the only one of the four that was an overall top divisional seed.

So far, at least, area teams have also reaped the benefits of less travel time to playoff matches. The days of all-day bus rides to a playoff match-up for those programs have, so far, disappeared.

Unlike the Southern Section, the higher seed in the Central Section gets the home playoff assignment every time.

Tennis players had to adapt to a new format. The Southern Section has a round-robin format in which six singles players and three doubles teams on a squad play three one-set matches. Thus, a maximum of 18 team points are possible in a match.

The Central Section format has each of a team's six singles players playing one best two-of-three sets match against their counterparts (No. 1 from one squad vs. No. 1 from the other, etc.), and three doubles teams doing the same. Nine team points are possible.

On balance, the verdict among the players seemed to be slightly in favor of the Central Section format.

This past fall, the teams that were hit the hardest by the switch were several girls teams that stayed in the Southern Section.

This was particularly true in girls tennis and girls water polo.

For years, Santa Ynez had a tennis dynasty going in the old Los Padres League. Orcutt Academy and Cabrillo had cut in on that dynasty the past couple of seasons.

Santa Ynez was now up against three Santa Barbara teams in the newly re-formed Channel League which included old Los Padres League foes Lompoc and Cabrillo who all joined Santa Barbara, Dos Pueblos and San Marcos in the new league.

Orcutt Academy moved to the Central Section and, despite finishing near the bottom of the Mountain League, made the playoffs this year.

Neither Santa Ynez, which had been ranked among the top Southern Section Division 5 teams most of the year, nor Cabrillo made the playoffs because they did not finish in the top three in the Channel League. Neither did Lompoc, which had been a playoff regular in the Los Padres League.

And the move to the Central Section presented scheduling problems for girls water polo.

The Southern Section plays boys water polo in the fall and girls in the winter season.

The Central section had both boys and girls water polo as fall sports.

That created a shortage of opponents for the new Central Section schools in the fall and the same problem for the Southern Section holdovers in the winter.

In football, Lompoc continued to roll, going undefeated and winning the league championship in its first year in the Channel League.

Divisional placings varied for the first-year Central Section members. Coaches and athletic directors who commented about the matter took their program's divisional placing by the Central Section in stride.

"They took us in," one area athletic director said. "They didn't have to."

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Sports Reporter

Kenny Cress, sportswriter for the Santa Maria Times since September of 2000. BA in political science from Cal Poly Pomona. BA in journalism from Cal State Northridge.