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Wednesday, Feb. 10

Santa Rosa (16-2-2, 10-1-1) at Montgomery (12-4-2, 9-2-1), 6 p.m.

Maria Carrillo (5-8-0, 3-7-0) at Rancho Cotate (12-5-2, 9-3-0), 6 p.m.

Ukiah (0-8-2, 0-8-2) at Casa Grande (10-6-3, 6-6-0), 6 p.m.

Windsor (8-8-1, 5-6-1) at Cardinal Newman (6-11-5, 0-9-3), 6 p.m.

Friday, Feb. 12

Casa Grande at Santa Rosa, 6 p.m.

Montgomery at Ukiah, 6 p.m.

Cardinal Newman at Maria Carrillo, 6 p.m.

Rancho Cotate at Windsor, 7 p.m.

Source for team records: maxpreps.com

When the Santa Rosa and Montgomery boys soccer teams take the field tonight, there will be a ton at stake.

On the line is likely the North Bay League championship in what has been a wild season of swapped wins, surprise losses and emotional contests. Also playing out tonight is perhaps the final act in a drama that has gone on largely behind the scenes over the midyear transfer of the most coveted high school player in the region.

Bryan Rosales’ academic struggles at one school, subsequent transfer to another and regulatory wrangling that followed may end up affecting more than the two squads on the field tonight as both sides contend the situation was mishandled.

Both sides say this isn’t about high school soccer. But it is. And it’s also about academics, a student’s future and playing fair.

How you feel about the transfer of Rosales from Santa Rosa to Montgomery in October very likely falls in line with what school you root for.

Let’s take a look.

Bryan Rosales, 16, grew up in El Salvador with relatives after his parents left for the United States when he was a toddler. Four years ago, he came to Santa Rosa to join them. He spoke no English and wrote no English, but he played soccer with gifts so obvious that Antonio Garcia, acting as a camp director for a free city program, saw Rosales messing around with the ball and invited him to train with the Santa Rosa United club he coached.

Rosales played for United, first for Garcia’s team, then others, for years. He still does. Last summer his way was paid to Northern Ireland to play in the prestigious Dale Farm Milk Cup against the likes of Liverpool’s development squad. This kid is on soccer’s radar. College coaches have reached out to his club team inquiring about his future.

When it came time to register for high school, Rosales had a choice to make. He attended Cook Middle School so could have matriculated to Elsie Allen. His family lived in Piner’s district so he could have been a Prospector.

But Rosales filled out the Santa Rosa City Schools paperwork for an intradistrict transfer and enrolled at Santa Rosa High, where Garcia was the varsity soccer coach.

“Coach Antonio, I wanted to play for him,” Rosales said. “He was my first coach in Santa Rosa.”

Rosales shined at Santa Rosa. And, by his telling, he loved it there.

“The environment and my friends,” he said. “I really liked the spirit. I really liked it there.”

But his grades, while enough to keep him eligible to play high school soccer, were not enough to make him NCAA eligible after graduation.

Enter Richard Cawood.

Cawood, a retired attorney, is the volunteer team manager for his son Ben’s United soccer team, the same team on which Rosales plays. In that role, Cawood said he’s seen firsthand the interest college coaches have in Rosales. Cawood said that for the past three years, he and his wife Ruth have supported Rosales’ soccer playing by paying team fees, buying gear and paying for his travel. They also tutored Rosales and bought him clothes and school books.

Cawood says he first learned of Rosales’ academic struggles from Garcia.

When Cawood began to inquire with Santa Rosa High officials last fall about Rosales’ grades, Bryan’s mom, Roxana Recinos, who speaks only Spanish, made Cawood her son’s educational advocate, effectively giving him permission and access to Rosales’ academic records and giving him the right to act on the boy’s behalf.

“It’s not about soccer, it’s about a child being academically eligible,” he said.

Cawood isn’t alone in saying this isn’t about soccer. Both sides insist soccer has nothing to do with what happened next. But it’s soccer that got Rosales noticed by Garcia and placed on a United team, it’s soccer that let Rosales travel to Northern Ireland last summer and it’s soccer that could provide a way for him to attend college.

It’s about Rosales’ ability to play soccer and where those abilities might take him in the future. But it’s also not hard to believe that it’s about soccer and about Rosales’ abilities and where those abilities might take any team for which he plays today.

Rosales was terrific on the soccer field for the Panthers as a freshman, but things were not going as well in the classroom. In ninth grade, Rosales had taken only two college prep classes and got a non-passing grade in one of them. He was not enrolled in academic English, a crucial class and building block for progress toward NCAA eligibility. His sophomore schedule had three college prep courses but also featured a repeat of the algebra class in which he’d received a D and continued Rosales on a nonacademic path in English.

During tutoring sessions, Cawood says he came to believe that Rosales is bright but struggled with language. It was an issue of comprehension.

In documents later submitted to North Coast Section officials, Cawood said he turned first to Santa Rosa High School counselor Kris Bertsch-Rydell for help in getting Rosales back on track.

“The reception at SRHS was lackluster to changing Bryan’s path of academic learning,” he wrote. “Ruth and I were noted as Academic Guardians for Bryan but despite this we gained little traction to improve Bryan’s learning at SRHS.”

Citing student confidentiality, Bertsch-Rydell declined to comment. Santa Rosa Principal Brad Coscarelli on Tuesday afternoon deferred questions to Jason Lea, Santa Rosa City School’s assistant superintendent for human resources. Lea did not return a call for comment.

Cawood says he tried to find a solution at Santa Rosa but made no progress. He says he knows now that he could have demanded academic classes for Rosales, and that would have overridden a counselor or teacher recommendation, but that he was never informed of that option.

Rosales said he too asked Bertsch-Rydell about moving to academic classes.

“She said I wasn’t ready and I was going to fail probably,” he said.

Cawood says he looked at options for credit recovery at Santa Rosa Junior College before turning to Montgomery, where two of this three children attend, including sophomore Ben, a standout defender on the Vikings soccer team.

He was informed of the Students Teachers Achieving Resiliency and Success (STARS) program. It was established at Montgomery this fall.

Montgomery Principal Laurie Fong cited student confidentiality in not speaking about Rosales specifically, but said the STARS program serves ninth- and 10th-graders in their English and history courses, providing extra teacher time and counselor support.

It’s aimed at kids who are “not on an academic track at all.”

“It’s more of a wrap-around care, more counseling time,” she said. “It’s our answer for what we are doing for those kids (who need) more support in school to be college and career ready.”

In later testimony, Santa Rosa Assistant Principal Mitchell Carter said the school does not offer the equivalent of the STARS program but could offer tutoring and after- school help from teachers.

Cawood saw STARS as the solution. Recinos went to Montgomery to find out more about the program. She was sold. The transfer paperwork was filled out.

Oct. 16 was Rosales’ last day at Santa Rosa. On Monday, Oct. 19, Rosales started at Montgomery.

The boundary lines between recruiting and serving a student’s needs were further blurred by the fact that over the summer, Rosales and his family moved from their Coffey Lane apartment to one off of Colgan Avenue — Montgomery’s attendance area. Had Rosales started the school year at Montgomery, he could have suited up for the Vikings immediately with no paperwork, no appeal.

But because he started the year at Santa Rosa, he was required to sit out of competition until Jan. 4.

Both sides point to this fact as a key component supporting their argument. Santa Rosa supporters say it proves Rosales was happy and had no desire to leave until Cawood convinced him. Montgomery backers say if they really wanted to poach Rosales, the convincing would have occurred in the summer and he would have enrolled as a Viking from day one.

“We could have easily moved him,” Cawood said.

“The choices we make, we make as a family,” Rosales said. “That is the way it is. I wasn’t led by Mr. Cawood.”

Recinos, speaking Spanish and translated by her son, agreed.

“She thinks it’s very simple and they are making it complicated,” he said, sitting next to his mom at their kitchen table.

But Rosales did start the year at Santa Rosa, so when he left for Montgomery in mid-October, NCS transfer rules prohibited him from playing until Jan. 4.

On Rosales’ last day at Santa Rosa, Bertsch-Rydell sent an email to NCS Commissioner Gil Lemmon alerting him to what she described as “alarming news” and the role Cawood had in Rosales’ move.

“This dude is convincing the family that Bryan will have a better chance of getting a full scholarship if he attended MHS,” she wrote. “His parents and Bryan have only been in the country for three years and do not know the ways of the US and are easily convinced. He is doing great at SRHS in all ways and it is unfortunate he is being uprooted for others’ advantages.”

“I am disgusted with this guy and for the MHS boys soccer coach,” she wrote.

She concludes the email with “I just wanted to give you the heads up when the transfer paperwork comes through.”

On Nov. 30, Lemmon ruled that Rosales would have to sit out a year because of “evidence of undue influence and athletic motivation … ”

Cawood acknowledged that his role could look selfish; after all, his son is a sophomore and could benefit from playing alongside Rosales for three years. But Cawood insists his intention is to get Rosales on track academically to show college coaches that Rosales is a legitimate prospect. He insists he tried to keep Rosales at Santa Rosa but when he couldn’t, he believes Rosales was penalized unnecessarily.

When asked whether sitting out a year would prove once and for all that the move was not about soccer, Cawood said its integral to who Rosales is.

“It’s his life. It’s who he is,” he said.

He wants the process for denying a student’s right to play changed.

Lemmon, the NCS commissioner who made the original ruling to hold Rosales out for a year, said that while he is barred from discussing the Rosales case specifically, he countered any assertion that he doesn’t investigate before ruling.

“When I make a decision, it is very thorough. It always involves family, the enrolling school and the former school,” he said. “I have never made a hasty decision.”

Lemmon acknowledged that Cawood has the advantage in the narrative of this saga because he’s not bound by student-confidentiality laws from telling his side.

“I’m subject to being a little more discreet than that,” he said.

Historically, the original decision stands.

But when Cawood saw Bertsch-Rydell’s email, he said he sensed a back-room deal in the works.

Rosales’ family, with Cawood’s assistance, appealed the ban.

The retired attorney compiled a history of communication both with Santa Rosa and Montgomery high schools, included letters of support from Sonoma State head soccer coach Marcus Ziemer, Santa Rosa United’s technical director Kelcey Chaidez, and information on Montgomery’s STARS program. He also included Rosales’ transcripts

Rosales testified on his own behalf.

“It’s a very good life lesson to stand up for yourself when you don’t agree with the decision,” Cawood said.

I asked Cawood if he could see how Santa Rosa supporters might think something is amiss here — dad of a Vikings soccer player taking control of a star’s academic future, and lo and behold, that star ends up as his son’s teammate.

“It smells rotten. Absolutely,” he said. “It does smell fishy, I admit it.”

But he said he tried to fix Rosales’ situation first at Santa Rosa before looking at other options. Rosales was not served there, he said.

And he says his sole motivation is for Rosales to play in college. He’d be the first in his family to attend a university.

Cawood insists he cares little about high school soccer, and bristled when Bertsch-Rydell erroneously called him “head of the MHS booster club” in her email to Lemmon.

Booster or not, it’s hard to deny he’s a strong supporter of the Montgomery soccer team when reading two emails he sent me last week about the Vikings’ prospects with Rosales in the lineup.

“… Clearly bringing in Bryan (sophomore, State and Regional player) is a potential game changer. Monty suddenly has the most dynamic attacking midfielder north of San Francisco!” he wrote. “Perhaps this was SRHS motivation the whole time, keep Bryan out of the side for soccer reasons. Or just call me suspicious.”

Call everyone suspicious on this one.

But it’s also hard to argue with Rosales’ academic turnaround at Montgomery. What Cawood put in motion seems to be working.

Five of Rosales’ six classes in the second quarter of the fall semester were college prep. He earned all A’s and one B.

“The kid killed it,” Cawood said.

With one session of summer school, Rosales is on track to be NCAA eligible upon graduation.

But he was still banned from playing while the appeal process inched its way along. He was practicing with the Vikings but not playing in games.

On Jan. 14, the three- person State CIF Appeals Office found that the “testimony of Mr. Cawood, educational advocate, was credible and convincing,” and “sufficient evidence was presented to rebut the presumption that Bryan’s transfer to Montgomery High School was in part or in whole, based on athletic reasons.”

Rosales was cleared to play on Tuesday, Feb. 2. The next day, he scored two goals and had an assist in the Vikings’ 4-0 win over Windsor.

Coaches may direct play on the field, but it’s hard to find evidence of either Montgomery coach Jon Schwan or Santa Rosa’s Garcia, directing any of the drama around the Rosales transfer.

Both Schwan and Garcia call it “a mess.”

Schwan insists he did not recruit Rosales and in fact was only alerted to the impending move when Garcia alerted him. He did, however, write a letter in support of Rosales’ appeal.

There is a tone of resignation in Garcia’s voice when he talks about it, like he’d just as soon not. People will look at what happened to see what they want to see, he said.

“It doesn’t matter what I say or what Richard says or what’s in the paper,” he said. “It’s all open for interpretation.”

And then it comes back to the argument that this has nothing to do with high school soccer.

But if it’s not about high school soccer, then why not let the kid play from the start? And if it’s not about high school soccer, then what’s the bother of sitting out a year?

Rules are there for a reason — to keep kids from hopscotching across town at the drop of a hat or to chase championships. But service to the student should be at the forefront — in this case there remains serious disagreement about what best serves Bryan Rosales.

Maybe it was all petty jealousy. Or a misguided drive for a cloth pennant to hang on the gym wall. The answer probably depends on who you root for.

“I wish this would have been handled differently,” Garcia said.

“This whole thing just seems to be about adults,” Garcia said. “I don’t know where this leaves Bryan.”

Right now, it leaves Bryan Rosales suiting up for the Vikings and squaring off against his former coach and his former teammates. The NBL title will very likely be decided tonight, even if a million other questions linger.

Rosales said he has no animosity toward Santa Rosa and in fact, is looking forward to tonight’s contest.

“I don’t have hatred toward Santa Rosa, no. No,” he said. “It’s just a high school game.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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