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Please scream at me, I asked El Molino principal Doria Trombetta on Tuesday. Please tell me I am nuts, crazy, don't know what the heck I am talking about. Please tell me I couldn't be more wrong. Please. I would like to hear it. I want to hear it.

"I would like to say that," Trombetta said. "I really would."

That I should be crazy nuts to even suggest El Molino's student enrollment would ever drop to 500 kids. That's what I asked Trombetta to so strongly reject.

"We don't have a crystal ball," Trombetta said.

That 500 number was offered by El Molino athletic director Mike Roan as his best guess as the critical tipping point, when the school would have to consider leaving the Sonoma County League for a smaller conference or league. According to Roan, this year El Mo's student population is 672. In 2005-06 he said it was 1,039. The dramatic drop in students has been well-documented and tonight there will be another Town Hall meeting to discuss how to stop the decline.

"I don't expect it to get that low (500)," said Roan, but then again he never expected to see such a rapid rate of decline, a 35 percent drop in the student population in just six years.

Roan speculated that 500 students at El Molino would be the fewest kids the school could have and still be competitive in the SCL.

"I averaged out the student population at every SCL school," Roan said, "and it came out to 1,100 kids per school. If we go to 500, I don't see how we could make it work."

A smaller and smaller student body impacts a high school in every facet of daily life, from the ability to keep teachers and programs to the broad smorgasbord of diversified experience. Athletics is affected as much as any school activity and more than most, the gathering at games often being the single largest assemblage of students at any one time on campus.

"My son, Chris, played three sports at El Molino," Trombetta said of her 1999 graduate, "and I firmly believe what Chris learned playing sports is the reason he graduated with honors from West Point."

In America, more is better. The quest for bigger cars, bigger homes, bigger televisions and bigger waistlines is endemic. Why decorate your home with one string of icicle lights when you can cover every roof, window and square foot of lawn with every imaginable color and pop-up singing figurine? Quantity, yes, we like quantity.

But a small town with a small school offers advantages a big city and a big school can never match.

"If you want to play a sport at El Molino and are committed," Roan said, "I can guarantee you will play. If you want to play more than one sport, you can do that, too, at El Molino. In fact, we encourage it. We like to share athletes."

At large high schools, kids sometimes are forced — or strongly encouraged, to put it more delicately — by coaches to choose one sport to the exclusion of all others.

"Sometimes the message is indirect," said Roan, 40. (Although you're on a team), "you sit at the end of the bench and rarely play."

Analy is El Molino's chief rival and the competition in athletics between the two schools is as strong as any in the city of Santa Rosa. While he is quick to point out he is friends with the Analy coaches and bears no personal ill will toward the Sebastopol school, Roan can also see why a kid from Forestville may want to transfer back to El Molino.

"A father could see his Jimmy sitting at the end of the bench," Roan said, "and realize it's so crowded there in that sport, that maybe Jimmy might want to go somewhere else where he could play."

Examples of kids feeling lost among 2,000 students are not infrequent. The only way a kid feels lost at El Molino is if he puts duct tape over his mouth and a bag over his head.

"Sooner or later, whatever happens on campus, you'll see me," said Roan, who, besides being the athletic director, also teaches one leadership and three physical education classes daily, is the school's Activities Director, a Booster Club Board member and the head coach of the junior varsity football team.

It is the intimacy of El Molino that Roan and Trombetta sell, that El Molino is a community. Seen through the eyes through which Mike Roan once saw, it takes on a strong allure.

"When I came here," Roan said, "I didn't even know where Sebastopol was."

Roan had finished his seven-year career as an NFL tight end, a horrific broken leg ending it. His wife, Amber, was from Orinda in the East Bay and the young couple wanted to relocate somewhere in the Bay Area.

"Over and over we kept hearing we should take a look at Sonoma County," Roan said.

As a kid growing up in Iowa, Roan had a fondness for the outdoors, of green things and space around them. He acquired a few bucks while playing for the Tennessee Titans. He wanted property. The Roans found some along Green Valley Road, halfway between Sebastopol and Forestville. He fell in love with the area. Roan, now in his 10th year at the school, found the perfect mix in West County, a country lifestyle attached to highly driven athletes.

"Look, is El Molino going to be a contender in every SCL sport every year?" Roan said. "No. But we will be competitive. That's one thing that has remained a constant year in and year out. We compete. We care."

Facing the challenge of declining enrollment, both Roan and Trombetta are of the same mindset — it's all hands on deck. There's not a suggestion they won't hear, not an idea so ludicrous that they won't take into consideration. They are trying to find ways to attract more kids to El Molino.

Some kids and their parents will be attracted to a school based solely on athletics.

"Look at De La Salle," Trombetta said of the East Bay school.

El Molino will never be De La Salle and it doesn't need to defend itself, either. Bigger is not always better. Bigger, sometimes, is just bigger. Instead, something better might be like that introductory song from that long-running comedy series, "Cheers."

You know, where everyone knows your name and they're always glad you came.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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