Winter playoffs are raging, with Central Section soccer semifinals under way this afternoon and tonight, likely in the rain in some spots.
Inside, the basketball playoffs get going tonight on the hardwood, too. We start with the girls tonight, and they're going to get the short end of the attention stick because of soccer playoffs, just like the boys will on Friday, their quarterfinal day. But the girls do get going tonight with first-round action, so I'll put my reputation, such as it is, on the line and do some bracket predictions. You can find a link to each division's bracket below, and we'll do the same thing with the boys tomorrow.
I still can't figure out how five-time defending champion Hanford ended up with a No. 3 seed here. Yes, the Bullpups had their 97-game winning streak against Central Section opponents end against D-II Ridgeview early in the year, and yes, Stockdale later beat Ridgeview. But Stockdale also lost to Clovis, which lost to Hanford, and the Bullpups cruised through everyone else. And how about Clovis West, which beat Clovis twice handily and hasn't played Hanford, Ridgeview or Stockdale? Anyway, Stockdale will take the top seed and the home-court advantage that comes with it through the semifinals. If the Mustangs make it back to Selland Arena for the eighth time in nine years, Hanford or Clovis West likely will be waiting.
Darkhorse: You don't want to sleep on Edison, which swept Bullard in CMAC play and is really rolling after a somewhat slow start to the season. The Tigers are more than capable of winning a road game at Clovis and getting to face Stockdale in a semifinal that really could be a coin flip with Edison's strong guard play and inside presence able to match the Mustangs' own.
Predicted final four: Stockdale, Edison, Hanford, Clovis West
Championship: Hanford d. Stockdale
Outlook: Hard to imagine any outcome here except the one we've been anticipating all year: Ridgeview and Garces rolling into Selland Arena for a Friday night showdown that will feature two of the best post players in the section, Garces freshman Celeste West and Ridgeview All-American senior Erica McCall. McCall and the Wolf Pack got the best of Garces the first time they played, and they'd be heavy favorites if the matchup happens again.
Darkhorse: Defending D-III champion Independence stunned Ridgeview in the championship game last year, and while I don't think the Falcons are capable of that again this year — the first meeting was a 50-point Wolf Pack win — but they do have some big-game experience and a tougher schedule than most of the teams in this division. That might be worth a road win at Madera in the quarterfinals. As for the only team that could disrupt a Ridgeview-Garces final? That's probably Redwood, which lost only two WYL games, both to Hanford.
Predicted final four: Ridgeview, Independence, Redwood, Garces
Championship: Ridgeview d. Garces
Outlook: Selma has been one of the surprises of the section, running up a 28-1 record against competition that, at least in non-league play, wasn't bad. Certainly good enough to merit the top seed. But this division will be far from a cakewalk. No. 2 Hanford West took Selma to the wire the first time the teams played, and Tehachapi and Cesar Chavez both had some very good performances.
Darkhorse: Shafter, the No. 6 seed, is a veteran team that won't be rattled by a quarterfinal trip to Tehachapi, if both teams get there. The Generals made that trip every year when Tehachapi was still in the SSL, and they're more than capable of pulling that surprise and getting into the final four.
Predicted final four: Selma, Chavez, Tehachapi, Hanford West
Championship: Hanford West d. Selma
Outlook: Other than Ridgeview in Division II, I don't see a division with a more clear favorite than Lindsay in Division IV. The Cardinals, 20-6 and 10-0 in the East Sequoia League, with five of the losses to higher-division or out-of-section teams. The one exception was a one-point loss to Chowchilla, which just happens to the be the No. 5 seed here in D-IV. Interesting. But the other top seeds, Mendota, Taft and Exeter, either have 9-plus losses or played a much weaker schedule (Mendota). So Lindsay is a big favorite, though it's worth noting that three of the top four teams in the division according to MaxPreps power rankings are in the top half of the bracket: Lindsay, Exeter and Chowchilla. So getting to Selland could be tough.
Darkhorse: The obvious choice is Chowchilla, which is seeded only fifth but beat Lindsay 48-47 in a December meeting and then finished third in a very good North Sequoia League. The Redskins will face a pretty long road trip to Exeter in the quarterfinals, but if they get by that, they'll have the confidence that top seed Lindsay isn't unbeatable.
Predicted final four: Lindsay, Exeter, Taft, Mendota
Championship: Lindsay d. Taft
Outlook: The CIF's enrollment cap of 500 has limited this division to four teams, so it doesn't even get going until next week. When they do start playing, Immanuel will be the clear favorite over the other three teams entered: Kings Christian, Laton and Paramount Bard.
Darkhorse: Not sure there can be one in a four-team bracket. Laton?
Actual final four: Immanuel, Paramount Bard, Laton, Kings Christian
Predicted championship: Immanuel d. Kings Christian