Benefield: High schools roll with another fall sports interruption

Here. We. Go. Again.

For the third time in three years, fires, smoke-filled air or - in the case of this week, an intentional power shut-off by PG&E meant to curb the chance of wildfires in Northern California - have scrambled prep sports schedules and added a dash of chaos to the fall sports calendar. Coaches, athletes and athletic directors throughout the Redwood Empire are once again thrust into re-organizational overdrive, creating contingency plans for schedules that were in most cases made months ago.

“We have been through this before. It comes with the territory now,” said Greg Alexander, Cloverdale High’s athletic director and football coach.

In 2017, schedules and lives were turned upside down after deadly wildfires ripped through Santa Rosa and beyond. In 2018, it was lingering smoke from the fire that razed the community of Paradise that turned fall schedules on end. Now, it is preemptive power shut-offs by PG&E that have shuttered schools and sent officials scrambling to remake schedules.

“As athletic directors and administrators, we have to be ready to change things on the fly,” said Scott McKeon, athletic director for Technology High and Rancho Cotate High, both of which were closed Wednesday.

No one I talked to Wednesday had anything but empathy for people affected by wildfires, whether last year or the year before. In fact, many expressed concern for their athletes and families that, in some ways, are being forced to confront fire-related traumas yet again. One coach said she has an athlete who just last week moved into her home that was razed by the Tubbs fire, so she is now dealing with yet another round of fire-related scenarios.

“I think we are becoming tolerant of interruptions in our season over the past three years,” Maria Carrillo cross country coach Greg Fogg said, while adding, “I am still in denial. I don’t want to accept this as the norm.”

Fogg and his team were supposed to host the marquee cross country event of the North Bay League-Oak Division season at Spring Lake Wednesday. The league season opener, it was to have pitted the Pumas against Santa Rosa as well as Montgomery. In fact, in the wake of Santa Rosa City Schools’ announcement that Maria Carrillo would be closed Wednesday for lack of power, Fogg thought he had it solved by midday Tuesday.

North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing confirmed that students were allowed to participate in sports even though there was no school for some.

“… a student who is not in school all day may not practice or play, but in this circumstance, because some of our schools were closed, that rule does not apply,” she said.

So coaches were consulted, athletic directors made calls - and it was cleared for the meet to go on at the park. Then Sonoma County officials called - Spring Lake facilities would be closed.

Another round of calls and texts ensued - this time, it was final: No meet.

“We try to get amped up for NBLs. Our focus has always been league competition and showing well at league,” Santa Rosa coach Carrie Joseph said. “We build up the NBL season, then we can’t start it. It feels deflating.”

Not only does the change disrupt long-crafted training plans meant to allow athletes to peak at certain times during the season, the specter of a crucial league meet being shoehorned in at some point later in the season is now real.

Fogg said that as these disruptions to the plan keep occurring, he tries to use them as teaching tools.

“In our sport we talk about mental toughness and a strong mindset. Part of that is being prepared,” he said.

And part of being prepared is being able to deal with the unknown and changes on the fly - whether that is in a race or in the schedule.

“It’s being able to react without freaking out about something that was not part of the plan,” he said.

But it can wear on a person.

By Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear when that crucial tri-meet would be rescheduled. At 3 p.m. Wednesday the school district sent out an email announcing that Carrillo, as well as Rincon Valley Middle, Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter, Santa Rosa Middle, Hidden Valley, Proctor Terrace and Lewis Education Center would remain closed through Thursday.

The schedule shuffle was not limited to Santa Rosa or to cross country.

In Cloverdale, schools were shuttered and sports were on the move. And in limbo.

The Eagles’ cross country meet was to go forward as scheduled, while boys and girls home soccer games were still on for Thursday.

But what about Thursday night volleyball, a game depending on a working gym with lights?

“That is up in the air, depending on power,” Alexander said.

And the Eagles are supposed to host the Kelseyville Knights in football Friday night. If there are no lights, there can be no game. Alexander said the backup plan has the JV game kicking off at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and varsity at 1 p.m.

“Like back in the day before lights,” he said.

A decision is expected by noon Friday.

In Sonoma Valley, the Dragons will host Casa Grande High in football not on Friday night, but Monday night, according to athletic director Mike Boles, who on Twitter Wednesday evening gave a “huge thank you” to the Gauchos for going along with the plan.

In Rohnert Park, both Rancho Cotate and Tech High were closed Wednesday, but the Cougars were slated to continue on with their cross country meet at Analy High in Sebastopol and both boys and girls soccer were on to play Wednesday afternoon. But Tech has a home volleyball game scheduled for Thursday night.

“Volleyball - we are still kind of looking into that one,” McKeon said. “Our district is concerned that they may cut the power at noon. It’s a holding pattern.”

McKeon credited his colleagues with being understanding.

“I think everyone has done a great job,” he said.

Seemingly every email, he said, concludes with a word of encouragement or offer of help.

Smith Billing agreed.

“I don’t have to make any league edicts,” she said. “Schools are offering to lend facilities to other schools if they don’t have power. They are doing a really wonderful job.”

Unfortunately, at this point, they have had a lot of practice.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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