A basic guide to CIF terminology

Shreya Aithal, Staff Writer

The California Interscholastic Federation is an essential part of any high school athlete’s season. While most hear the terms used casually by athletes, CIF terminology can be confusing to athletes and non-athletes alike. Refer to this guide of the intricacies of  CIF as you go through games of the week, tournaments, playoffs and more.


The governing organization for high school sports in California. Founded in 1914, CIF originally attempted to standardize rules throughout the state, and has been a statewide organization of regulations for all sports since 1917.


With many tiers of competition, CIF is first split into ten sections. Northwood falls under the Southern Section, which is the largest section and covers schools in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and some schools in Santa Barbara.


Each section is split into individual leagues, which are often dependent on one’s city. Northwood, all other IUSD schools, Beckman High School, Laguna Hills High School and Sage Hill High School fall under the Pacific Coast League, which is one of 90 leagues in the Southern Section. League championships occur near the end of each sport’s season to determine top schools in the league.

Non-League games:

Before league play begins, teams will play other schools in the area in non-league games, which are not part of the CIF portion of the season. 


After league play concludes, individual teams are split into divisions which vary by sport, and the number of divisions varies depending on the sport. Divisions are decided by the performance of the schools throughout various seasons, in both league and CIF tournaments. After league championships, sports advance to CIF playoffs in their respective divisions. 

Section tournaments:

Each division plays a tournament from which the top team advances to the section tournament, which plays in the same style as league and playoffs. For sports without a State Championship, their season will end here. For the Southern Section, section tournaments are abbreviated as CIF-SS.

Regional Tournaments:

 Regional tournaments take place after section tournaments conclude with top teams from each section, to determine entries for the State Championships. The brackets for regional tournaments may differ for each sport.

State Championships: 

This is the final level of CIF play, but only takes place for certain sports. For these sports, top teams from each division continue to compete within their division to determine who will take the CIF State Championship title. 

Fall Season Preview:

Reminders for spectators this fall season include that cross country runners will go through CIF-SS Preliminaries and Finals before potentially qualifying for the State Meet based on their standing.

In addition, Girls golf will participate in CIF-SS Finals, then go on to Team Divisional Championships and team and individual Southern California Golf Association qualifiers. Post these tournaments and qualifiers, SCGA tournaments will take place and serve as the regional tournaments for CIF. After this, the team may be eligible for the State Championships based on team standing.

Boys football will  finish their CIF playoff schedules (CIF-SS Preliminaries and Finals) before potentially being eligible to compete at the Southern regionals and State Championships based on their standing after they finish their CIF playoff schedules.

Girls tennis approach the end of their season with their section tournament (CIF-SS preliminaries and finals), going on to play at the Southern California Team Regionals, as well as individual sectionals and then championships before their season comes to an end.

Girls volleyball became eligible to compete at CIF State Championships based on their rankings after CIF playoff rounds and Southern California Regionals.

Boys Water polo has made a recent change into a league carousel format, playing in a single-elimination bracket for both league and CIF games, although this practice will only be implemented for varsity teams. The top two teams after the first round of games will advance in league and qualify for CIF-SS tournaments. The remaining teams will compete with one another, with the top four making it to CIF as well. All games will be hosted at Sage Hill High School.