Benefield: High school football teams deserved better than a coin flip
Flipping a coin was never a great plan.
Flipping a coin thumbed a nose at each team’s body of work, it disregarded the expert opinion that was sought and heeded by North Coast Section officials when seedings were announced and it threw out any notion of competitive equity.
Flipping a coin undermined the very notion of competition.
And it didn’t have to be this way.
Cardinal Newman, seeded first in the North Coast Section Division 3 football tournament, beat No. 4 seed El Cerrito 38-0 in the semifinal game Friday night. But the Cardinals won’t play for the section championship this weekend and they won’t play in the NorCal region tournament. They won’t play at all. Their season is over.
Because of a coin flip.
A brief recap: The deadly Camp fire in Butte County affected air quality across the North Bay so severely in recent weeks that football games were postponed to the point that there was not enough time to play out the postseason. Two teams reached the finals in divisions 2-5, but without time to play the championship game and determine which team would move on to the NorCal regional game.
In a special conference call Nov. 14 with the NCS executive committee (for which five members were absent), it was determined that two criteria would be used to decide which of the championship game teams would advance.
First, if the teams had played earlier in the season, the team that won would move on. And if that didn’t decide it, a coin would be flipped.
It was later agreed that if the two teams that reached the championship games in their divisions did not want to play in the NorCal regional game, they could agree to play the NCS title game instead. But that choice would prevent them from the possibility of advancing to the NorCal regional game because that tournament would already be underway.
When the coin flip plan was adopted, there were murmurs of disbelief locally, mainly because three of the four local teams still in the tournament were No. 1 seeds and were clear losers if the plan was adopted. But there was hope in mid-November that the air would clear, the games would be played and the coin flip debate would be moot.
But the air didn’t clear. And it soon became obvious that the section tournament brackets could not be completed in time.
Three Redwood Empire teams had to make a choice before they played their respective semifinal games. Both Kelseyville, seeded No. 1, and Middletown, the No. 5 seed - who faced off in Division 5 - said they would forgo NorCals and play for the section title should they prevail. Rancho Cotate, the top seed in Division 2, said the same.
But Cardinal Newman, the top seed in Division 3, took a vote among its seniors - and it was decided they would rather try for a chance to play deeper into the state tournament, even though that route would mean surviving a coin flip.
On Friday, Rancho Cotate was upset by No. 5 seed Marin Catholic, ending the Cougars’ season. Middletown upset Kelseyville and will play Salesian Prep at Alhambra High School Saturday night for the NCS Division 5 championship.
And Newman beat No. 4 seed El Cerrito 38-0.
So it came down to a Sunday morning coin flip between No. 1 Cardinal Newman and No. 2 Eureka to decide would advance to the NorCal regional game this Friday.
The Cardinals picked tails. It landed on heads.
The Cardinals knew they were taking a chance. They knew the risks and the rewards and they agreed, largely because they felt they had a squad that not only could win a section title, but that could do something more in NorCals and beyond. The risk was worth it to them.
But this is not about Cardinal Newman losing a coin flip. And it’s not even solely about Cardinal Newman.
The looming possibility of a coin flip clearly informed the postseason plans of all local teams in the lead-up to the semifinals. It was a major distraction at a time when teams don’t need another distraction.
And it was never a good plan.
At the Nov. 14 teleconference, the NCS executive committee was presented with three options if the bracket could not be completed: Send no team, flip a coin or advance the team with the higher seed.
Then a committee member floated, and the majority eventually supported, a fourth option: Use head-to-head records between the two teams. If that doesn’t decide it, flip a coin.
But they almost didn’t vote at all.
The meeting, scheduled to begin by phone at 9 a.m., was not called to order until 42 minutes later because it took that long to get seven members, enough for a quorum, on the line.
Before that, at 9:33 a.m., Eric Volta - the superintendent of the Liberty High Union School District and the executive committee facilitator - ?presumably tired of waiting for the seventh member to call in, told NCS Commissioner Gil Lemmon that if a quorum couldn’t be reached, “then you will just have to make an administrative decision.”