Benefield: North Coast Section football playoffs will look different this year

For the second time in as many seasons, the North Coast Section football playoffs will look different when they come around in two weeks. That is, if yet another season of wildfires, poor air quality and carefully-crafted-schedules-tossed-out-the-window adjustments don’t get in the way yet again.

These playoffs were going to look different way before our latest weather calamity.

So let’s proceed with the walk-through under the assumption that section football playoffs will kick off Nov. 8. The playoffs will look different - and the first thing you will likely notice is competition starts with the quarterfinals. There will be no more “Round One.” A full week - and a full game - has been lopped from the schedule.

The brackets are eight teams deep this year, not 16 as in years past. There is no Open Division. But there are more divisions in all.

Last year, there was the Open Division, then Divisions 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 and an 8-person-team bracket. This year there are Divisions 1-7 plus an 8-person bracket.

There were various strands of inspiration for the change, not the least of which was a rule passed by the California Interscholastic Federation that no section runner-ups could advance to the state tournament, a decision that essentially ?rendered the Open Division useless.

The Open Division was largely created so that a team other than De La Salle could advance to the state playoffs because runners-up (whoever was playing De La Salle) could also advance. If that is no longer possible, no team would presumably want to be pulled into the Open.

Plus, under the Open Division plan, the team that won the Division 1 title was not allowed to advance and that seems a little unfair, even if none of those divisions affect our smaller programs up this way.

So they set to tinkering. But it’s no easy feat messing with a section the size of NCS. The section is massive, both geographically and with the respect to the number of schools and the relative size of the programs. Officials are tasked with creating playoff brackets that work for De La Salle as well as Tomales.

What they came up with were more divisions, smaller brackets and no Open. And where they put schools in the first year of the new system was based on both enrollment and competitive-equity formulas that took into account a program’s successes, or lack thereof, since 2013.

So Casa Grande, Montgomery, American Canyon, Rancho Cotate, Santa Rosa, Ukiah and Windsor are in Division 3. Cardinal Newman, Maria Carrillo, Petaluma and Piner are in Division 4. Analy and Sonoma Valley are in Division 5. Fort Bragg, Kelseyville, Lower Lake and Middletown are in Division 6 and Clear Lake, Cloverdale, El Molino, Healdsburg, St. Helena, St. Vincent and Willits in Division 7.

In eight-person, there is Calistoga, Roseland Collegiate Prep, Tomales and Upper Lake, among others.

So this season, what does all of this mean for us? Apparently not a ton, according to local athletic directors and coaches.

Most are taking a ?“wait and see how this one plays out” attitude before deciding if the tinkering was a good move.

“For us, it seems like status quo,” Santa Rosa High athletic director Kenny Knowlton said. “I think we are still trying to figure it out. I think we will learn this year if there is any negative.”

Still, there was ?across-the-board positive reaction to the elimination of those first-round games. With 16 teams in a bracket, it simply guaranteed blowouts everywhere you looked.

“Poor 16 always got the snot beat out of them,” said Coastal Mountain Conference Commissioner Robert Pinoli. “This way it gets broken up a little bit. It’s more competitive.”

And snot-beatings were only happening when games were even played. Last year there were 18 first-round byes spread across all divisions, including six in Division 1 alone. That means 18 teams sitting around a full week, potentially getting stale. The only division that played every first-round game was Division 2.

Sure, sometimes a bye can help a team that is a little bit beaten up, but I’m guessing the majority of coaches and players would rather have a game on the schedule than a bye.

And about those blowouts. They were real.

Last season, out of 28 first-round games played, the average margin of victory was more than 30 points.

And in eight-person football, where the bracket actually started with eight teams? Only two played in the first round - Tomales beat Upper Lake 44-19 - and three teams advanced to the semifinals without playing a down.

Pinoli was glad to see the restructuring.

“I think we are going to enjoy this system a lot better,” he said. “I really think it’s going to be better in the long run, especially for our CMC schools.”

It’s not yet clear if a team that would have eked its way into the playoffs under the old system will be left out under the new one. But many locals questions how positive a playoff experience can be if it ends in a 70-0 rout.

“Yes, you get the opportunity to play in NCS, but if they lose by 40 or 50, that’s not good for anybody, that’s not the goal of interscholastic sports,” said Cardinal Newman athletic director Jeff Nielson.

So on his campus, the focus isn’t brackets or structure or any real conversation about the changes, he said. Those things are out of players’ and coaches’ hands.

“It always boils down to this: You’ve got to play who you’ve got to play,” he said. “You play the team in front of you that week.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or

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