It’s not atypical to come into a new season and be faced with a few unknowns.
But for North Bay League boys soccer coaches (and players and parents and fans), the unknowns this season are off the charts.
First off, we are having this conversation in late November.
Last January, the NBL voted to move boys soccer to the winter in an effort to secure more competition with a larger pool of leagues who play soccer now instead of in the fall.
So this year, all eyes will not only be on top players and defending champs (Rancho Cotate), but on how fields hold up in the predicted El Niño winter, how schools manage outdoor light use restrictions, how club schedules will affect high school squads, what travel times to schools in the Bay Area will look like and, last but not least, how local teams fair in a bigger, badder North Coast Section postseason tournament.
The driving force for the NBL’s move was competition. Seventy-four schools played boys soccer in the fall this season, but 81 play in the winter. Those numbers shifted by seven with the Sonoma County League’s 4-3 vote Thursday to follow the NBL’s lead and play boys soccer in the winter next year.
But even the most ardent supporters of the move acknowledge this season will have its share of bumps.
“There are definitely going to be growing pains. We are going to have to work these things out,” said Maria Carrillo coach Mike Mastin.
And the NBL’s audience — curious minds watching how this winter deal unfolds — just got bigger. The NBL will likely be the proverbial guinea pig for the SCL’s move in a year.
So new, so uncharted and so unfamiliar is this new set-up, that some coaches don’t even know yet what they are working with as far as players.
Because winter is soccer’s official season of sport, according to CIF, players can’t play games for both club and high school teams at the same time.
“You can practice with both, but you can’t play in games,” said Montgomery coach Jon Schwan.
That means scads of teams are playing preseason games without the full complement of players at their disposal.
“No team is really going to be at full (strength) until December,” said Schwan, whose Vikings finished second to league champs Rancho Cotate last season before making a run all of the way to the NCS finals and falling to Terra Linda.
Ukiah, the squad from the most northerly reaches of the league, has a different preseason conundrum. It’s not a light roster, it’s a light schedule.
The Wildcats, who finished last in the NBL last fall, struggled to entice teams to make the long drive north for preseason games. Without the SCL in the mix this season, coach Raul Ramos was having to make calls to Marin County and Bay Area teams to drive north to play on Ukiah’s natural grass field.
He got no takers.
Preseason matches are typically based on reciprocity — you come to our place this year, we’ll travel to yours next season. But for Ukiah, that’s a lot of driving and Ramos felt like his team couldn’t afford it, nor could they free up parents to spend a half-day driving the team around northern California.