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if you go

Who: Piner at Sonoma Academy

What: Sonoma County League girls’ soccer

Where: Sonoma Academy

When: 4:30 p.m.

It’s a year of firsts and lasts for the Sonoma Academy Coyotes.

The girls’ soccer team, long the dominant force in the North Central II League, made the leap to both the winter season and playing in a brand new league after capturing their fourth-straight North Coast Section title last fall. The Coyotes are now facing off with the likes of Piner, Sonoma Valley and Petaluma in the Sonoma County League.

It made almost perfect sense to coach Chris Ziemer.

“I’m excited to be in the SCL,” he said. “We made a choice to challenge ourselves in a way that some people thought we should have done earlier and some people are surprised we did at all.”

The perfectly sensible reasons behind the Coyotes’ move to winter are many: Number one, it’s where all of the strong programs in the North Bay and beyond are going in an effort to build a more robust postseason tournament. Number two, the move follows the club soccer calendar and keeps top caliber players in sync with the larger soccer calendar. Number three, the Coyotes have been running roughshod over their opponents for years and are ready for a deeper pool of competition.

Last season the Coyotes went 20-0 and 16-0 in the North Central II league. Dominant? They scored 120 and gave up five. From 2012 through 2015, Sonoma Academy scored an average of more than six goals per game, allowing an average of less than one.

In the last eight years in which they competed in the Division 3 North Coast Section tournament, they won the title five times, including four years straight from 2013 to 2016.

But too much of that isn’t good for anyone. It’s hard to become a better soccer player when you are beating up, or getting beaten up yourself, 6-0 night after night.

So making a change makes sense.

But there are downsides. The rivalries that were built up over the years and that were fun for athlete and fan alike are gone. No more battles with the likes of St. Vincent’s or Middletown.

“We miss some of those traditional rivalries,” Ziemer said. “Middletown, St. Vincent, Clear Lake, you compete with them, you know the coach, you have a relationship. It’s fun. We miss those for sure.”

But when the North Bay and Sonoma County league girls followed the boys into the winter season this year, Ziemer knew he had to move his kids too. But where? The Coastal Mountain Conference decided to keep their competition in the fall, so Ziemer knew he’d be flying solo. It was either go independent and craft his own schedule, or join an established league.

“When all the large schools in the area voted to go, we had to decide, do we stay in the fall with the CMC or do we go with the other schools?” he said. “It just seemed like a natural time to kind of step outside what we have been doing. It’s a big thing for us.”

The Sonoma County League made sense for both size and competition level. Only problem? This is the last year of the SCL after section officials approved a re-alignment that begins next fall.

On that score, Ziemer had to chuckle. But he said he’s focused now on this season and the changes in front of his squad right now, not the next round of adjustments that will come soon enough.

“We are in the first year of the SCL for us and the in the final year for them,” he said. “Everybody is in transition right now.”

“You know what? We’ll just throw ourselves in the mix,” he said.

And squarely in the mix they are. The Coyotes are 2-2-2 overall heading into today’s league opener with Piner High. They tied University of San Francisco 0-0 and then handled Justin-Siena 7-0. They lost to the NBL’s Cardinal Newman 4-2 and then tied Napa 2-2.

Next up was Branson, the juggernaut of the Marin County Athletic League.

Branson, at 322 students, appears to be the Goliath to topple in their North Coast Section division, winning it the past two years when it was Division 3 and they were competing with schools with much higher enrollments.

So of course Ziemer scheduled them.

Branson beat Sonoma Academy 6-0 but Ziemer, used to handing out scores like that, seemed OK with it.

“They are a small school but that shouldn’t fool anyone. It’s not size, it’s quality,” he said.

That’s been the rule for Sonoma Academy for years.

Should they make the North Coast Section tournament, the Coyotes will compete in Div. 4. The parameters of Div. 4 are kind of brutal: the enrollment limits is 999 students or below, the largest span of all four divisions in the section.

Sonoma Academy is tied with Redwood Christian for lowest enrollment: 301 students. On the other end of the spectrum is John F. Kennedy High in Richmond with 998 students. The division this season also includes some familiar names: Cardinal Newman, Healdsburg and El Molino.

But first it’s the SCL opener today against Piner at home.

“We’ll see if it’s a good fit,” he said. “We know that we have some pieces to be competitive. Can we do it for 14 games? That remains to be seen.”

So this first-year experiment is less about league banners or NCS championships and more about seeing where his team stands in a wider field of competition.

“If that ends up hoisting something at the end, great,” he said. “If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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