No. 1: Wildfires bring chaos to Empire’s fall sports calendar
The effects of the North Bay wildfires on high school athletics were immediate and widespread, and unlike anything in memory.
All across the Redwood Empire and beyond, the meets and matches and games came to a halt. Athletes and coaches were displaced — some permanently by devastating blazes, others temporarily by evacuation orders. Schools and athletic facilities were decimated. North Coast Section executive director Gil Lemmon said he hadn’t seen in all his years a single school closed by a wildfire, and this year in Sonoma County there were three.
Outdoor practices became impossible because of the dangerous air quality, so some teams took to the road to find safer sites. As sports administrators began to piece together a reworked schedule, the NCS relaxed qualification standards for its football playoffs and allowed additional games to be scheduled.
Teams began to reassemble, and a light of optimism broke through — North Bay League rivals Rancho Cotate and Cardinal Newman arranged to play an extra football game on Monday, Oct. 23.
It would be the first of three meetings between the teams during the season, but none would match the emotion of that night in Rohnert Park. First responders were honored before the game.
The Cougars won the game, but the result was a small piece of the overall victory. The headline on The Press Democrat’s sports section the next morning read “Football fights back.”
As the region began to heal, sports became an important part of the process.
No. 2: NCS realignment alters landscape
Three Napa County high schools wanted relief from their arduous regular-season travel obligations, beginning a months-long process that ended in a realignment. It drastically changed the face of Sonoma County high school sports.
The Napa schools — Napa, Vintage and American Canyon —were transferred to the North Coast Section, dramatically changing the NCS.
Beginning in 2018-19, there will be no Sonoma County League. Casa Grande, Petaluma and Sonoma Valley were grouped in one league with the Napa schools, including private school Justin Siena.
At the same time, the remaining SCL teams were absorbed in a newly designed North Bay League, with two tiers of competition in each sport.
Designed to promote closer competition, the new alignment will be reviewed every two years.
No. 3: Cardinals stand among state’s best
The Cardinal Newman girls basketball team had dominated the local scene for two seasons and came into the 2016-17 campaign as defending state champions in their division.
But the Cardinals had loftier goals.
They captured the North Coast Section Division 4 championship, a trophy that had eluded them the previous year, and then received the honor of honors — selection to the Open Division field of the CIF state tournament.
Newman became the first Sonoma County team in history to reach that level of the state tournament.
“It had been our goal since the Open Division was created,” said coach Monica Mertle. “It means you’re one of the top eight teams in all of California.”
The Cardinals were seeded seventh but won two games, including an upset of powerful Carondolet in the first round, before falling to top seed Archbishop Mitty in the regional finals.