Bill Rozak

The Sonora Wildcats will compete in the Mother Lode League starting the 2014-15 school year under a proposed realignment plan released Tuesday by the Sac-Joaquin Section.

Sonora, a longtime member of the Valley Oak League, has been trying to join the MLL for several years and, two years ago, attempted to join the league in all sports except for football but was denied by the MLL in a unanimous vote.

Sonora's enrollment has decreased over the last few years and it is the smallest school in the VOL. Travel costs are another reason Sonora has sought change.

The closest school Sonora plays is Oakdale, which is around a 45-minute bus trip. The other road trips are Manteca (Sierra, East Union, Manteca and Lathrop), Stockton (Weston Ranch) and Tracy (Kimball). All of which are well over an hour away and up to two hours.

"It's a natural fit geographically," said Wildcat athletic director and boys' basketball coach Rick Francis. "We're all the same kids, Sierra foothills kids - other than maybe Linden. From a financial standpoint, we would save around 27 percent in travel costs which is huge. Like I said, I think it's a perfect fit for Sonora because our enrollment numbers will drop for the next few years."

In the realignment proposal, the VOL would be almost completely gutted with only four of the eight teams currently in the league remaining.

Schools moving out would be Sonora, Oakdale, Lathrop and Weston Ranch. Moving in to join Manteca, Sierra, East Union and Kimball would be Central Valley and Patterson.

The MLL would remain unchanged other than the addition of Sonora. Thus far the MLL is not welcoming the Wildcats with open arms.

"I think there would be some good and some bad," said Summerville athletic director Debbie Mager. "The good would be the crosstown rivalry and also the closeness with travel. The concern of our league seems to be that we don't want the teams currently in our league to be playing for second or third place. I see that concern with football. The other sports we compete really well. But I think this proposal will have many different drafts, so it's not a done deal."

Another positive may be increased attendance at games.

Sonora has a proud fan base that travels well to away games. As an example, Wildcat rooters this year outnumbered Weston Ranch fans at the Cougars' homecoming football game. And the average travel for MLL teams under the new proposal would be 32.8 miles, making it much easier for Sonora fans to attend league road games. It would also make life a little easier for the student-athletes getting home an hour or so earlier from away games.

Sonora would be the second largest school in the MLL (1,108 students) just behind Calaveras (1,133). The rest of the enrollments are Bret Harte (737), Linden (723), Amador (668), Summerville (661) and Argonaut (589).

"I really believe the section did a tremendous amount of research, they really did their homework," said Francis. "Naturally, there are gonna be unhappy people with change. It really comes down to the sport of football. They're afraid Sonora is going to dominate. But we're losing kids and Calaveras is bigger than us. I'm confused in the sense that they're anti-Sonora being in the league."

Tioga and Don Pedro high schools under the plan would remain in the Mountain Valley League and would welcome Excel Academy and bid farewell to Venture Academy.

Would realignment end "The Rivalry"?

Sonora and Oakdale have played each other on the gridiron almost yearly since 1922, with the Mustangs holding a 59-31-5 series advantage. The only break in the series came between 1923-26.

Oakdale has owned the series recently, taking 14 of the last 16 contests, which amplifies the disparity in enrollments with Oakdale's (1,613) on the rise and Sonora's on the downturn.

Oakdale has won six consecutive VOL titles. In baseball, the Mustangs have also won six straight league championships.

In the realignment proposal, Oakdale would be bumped up to Division II and moved into the Modesto Metro Conference because of its domination of the VOL and the fact it has won 10 section championships over the last two years.

"We would still try to schedule them in as many sports as possible," said Francis. "And with football, what would be great is to play them in the first game of the year."

While the Oakdale-Sonora series may be in limbo, the Wildcats would renew their gridiron rivalry with the Bears if the proposal is upheld.

Where does the proposal go now?

Tuesday's meeting was the first in a series of public hearings with the next to be held on Jan. 29 at 9 a.m. at The Reserve at Spanos Park Golf Course in Stockton.

Now that the section has placed Sonora in the MLL starting in 2014, the league is not able to deny the Wildcats membership by vote. They must either convince the section that Sonora would not be a good fit or formulate a new viable alternative for all realignment.

"It is going to be packed for the next meeting," said Francis. "This is the meeting that everyone comes back with their proposals."

After Jan. 29, there are three more meetings scheduled, Feb. 19, Mar. 12 and if necessary Apr. 9.

If the plan is ratified, it will be in effect for four years, but the issue may be revisited in two years.