s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

Cardinal Newman football coach Paul Cronin confirmed this week this his team will drop down to Division 4 for the 2015 North Coast Sections playoffs. It may sound like a mere bookkeeping matter, but the move could have big implications for the balance of power in the NCS postseason.

“We have 520 students in school,” said coach Roy Perkins of Fort Bragg, a Division 4 program, “and now we’re going to have to compete with a Cardinal Newman in the playoffs? What’s the plan?”

The North Coast Section bases its athletic divisions purely on enrollment. There are five divisions for football, each of them currently composed of 20-23 schools. The caveat is that schools may petition to move up to a higher division, presumably to find a more challenging bracket.

Cardinal Newman, with an official enrollment number of 609, qualifies for Division 4. But the Cardinals have consistently petitioned up. They played in Division 2 in 2008 and 2009, the first years of the current section playoff structure, and have competed in Division 3 since then, against the likes of Marin Catholic, Campolindo and El Cerrito.

Now Cardinal Newman is revoking its petition, which schools are free to do under NCS rules. To Cronin, it’s a matter of simplicity and equity, especially when he looks beyond the section playoffs to possible CIF state championships.

“The rules (on divisions) change,” Cronin said. “They’re all over the place. So you don’t know from year to year what’s gonna happen. So we basically said, OK, right now what’s our enrollment? OK, we’re about 600. And there’s schools like Justin-Siena that are a hundred more than us, schools already in (Division 4).

“So why not go to where everybody should be and just play it out and advance as far as you can, as opposed to continue to petition up and be in a division you’re not supposed to be in?”

Cronin said he and Cardinal Newman principal Graham Rutherford collaborated on the decision.

The coach said he believes his school won’t be the only one to revert to its proper slotting this year. Indeed, there are rumors that Marin Catholic, another program that has played up in Division 3, will join the Cardinals in D4 this year. Marin Catholic athletic director Adam Callan said the school hasn’t made that determination yet. The deadline for filing paperwork is Sept. 18.

Though no one questions Newman’s right to move down, the decision does not sit well with some of the coaches of Division 4, a collection that currently includes Fort Bragg, St. Helena, Healdsburg, Lower Lake, Kelseyville, El Molino and Elsie Allen among Redwood Empire schools.

“They’re just doing what they’re allowed to do,” Perkins said. “But they’ve never played Division 4 before and now they’re doing it? Why? I think it goes a bit against what they’ve always stood for. Why are they playing teams like St. Mary’s (of Stockton) and Clayton Valley Charter in the preseason, and then they come and play Kelseyville in the playoffs, or us? What’s the point of that? Is that challenging their kids?”

Mostly, though, opposing coaches question the system that makes it possible. Perkins believes Division 4 is too broad, with its enrollment range of 501 to 1,100. St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell agrees.

“When I got here, Division 4 was like 450 to 750,” he said. “To think the high end of that can go up 350 kids doesn’t make a lot of sense in just eight years’ time.”

North Coast Section commissioner Gil Lemmon stressed that it’s the member schools who set the divisions every March, at the NCS’ Sports Advisory Committee meeting. The divisions will not be reconfigured this year, no matter how many teams withdraw petitions.

And Lemmon doesn’t see a need to do so. Heading into the school year, there were 23 teams in Division 3 and 21 in Division 4. If Cardinal Newman drops a rung, there will be 22 in each of those divisions. Even if Marin Catholic joins the Cardinals, the size disparity won’t be great.

“So yeah, we’d probably decrease opportunities in Division 4 because we’d be adding two additional teams, but we’d be increasing opportunities in Division 3,” Lemmon said. “So it all balances out.”

The remaining Redwood Empire teams in Division 3 are Rancho Cotate, Analy, Piner, Petaluma and Sonoma Valley.

Farrell would like to see the NCS work with other sections to create sort of super-regional brackets in which the schools were much more comparable. When he coached in Illinois, he said, his team played in a division where enrollments ranged from about 450 to 600 kids.

“For whatever reason, traditional structures are too hard to break for our state and our sections,” Farrell said. “It’s especially costly to our small schools, who need the most balance to compete because of numbers.”

And then there’s the real issue underlying tensions when it comes time to divide up schools: public vs. private institutions. Cardinal Newman has 609 students. Healdsburg has 645. But the latter’s enrollment base comes almost entirely from the town of Healdsburg. Newman draws kids from all over Sonoma County. Some of them may be attracted to the private Catholic school partly because of its football program.

Many public school officials would argue that private school athletic programs have better access to equipment, weight facilities and skills camps.

“It’s not a level playing field,” Perkins said. “We’re a public school. We’ve got kids coming in, and no one’s paying tuition. And suddenly we’re competing against schools where people have to apply to get in.”

Some states have actively addressed the perceived inequity. Texas, Virginia and Maryland have separate playoff systems for public and private schools. Other states apply a multiplier to enrollment for private schools, artificially inflating their size. Alabama uses a multiplier of 1.35 for each student. In Illinois it’s 1.65. In Connecticut it’s 2.0.

California has no plans to add multipliers, Lemmon said. And yet the system may be in for changes. There is talk of California sections basing playoff divisions not on enrollment but on ranking or recent competitive history. That would almost certainly separate a program like Cardinal Newman from, say, St. Helena or Healdsburg.

Such a revision may be years down the road, though. For now, the small schools of Division 4 must make room for a local football heavyweight.

Farrell is trying to be philosophical.

“Basically, we have a responsibility to our school and to our players,” he said. “It’s a scenario of working hard, dealing with adversity, and how far that takes you is icing on the cake.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter @Skinny_Post.