Friday night lights: High school football returns to Sonoma County
High school football is back in Sonoma County starting on Friday — and compared to this past spring’s abbreviated season that followed 2020’s pandemic-related postponement, area coaches say this fall has the feeling of rebirth, normalcy and excitement.
Even so, pitfalls and hazards may still lie ahead, as some coaches expressed concerns that the sport could face breaks and game cancellations based on possible new COVID-19 mandates, wildfires, smoke and/or extreme heat.
But kickoff weekend starts as usual on Friday night. And it’s no surprise that according to a polling of six North Bay League coaches, the best three teams in the county, in no particular order, appear to be Rancho Cotate, Cardinal Newman and Windsor — with former longtime Newman coach Paul Cronin starting his tenure with the Jaguars.
Cronin won 12 NBL titles and eight North Coast Section titles in 18 years at the helm of the Cardinals. Cronin moving from Cardinal Newman, a school with a top-notch football pedigree and tradition, to Windsor, a program historically without the same tradition and postseason success, is a tectonic shift in the possible balance of Sonoma County football.
“I love the Cardinal Newman kids and families. I am looking forward to the new challenge at Windsor,” Cronin said. “I am hoping to have the same discipline and focus at Windsor. There is no tougher challenge than the first year of a program.”
Windsor has 40 varsity players, with 17 seniors and 50% of their starters back. Chase Vehmeyer, a senior, is returning to start at quarterback and serves as one of the Jaguars’ team leaders.
“It’s Paul Cronin. He’s going to get Windsor dialed in,” Santa Rosa coach Roy Keegan said. “It’s a good program over there.”
Cardinal Newman will be guided by new coach Richard Sanchez, who brings more than 29 years of experience, including leading Southern California powerhouse St. Augustine to several San Diego Section titles. He also was an assistant coach (defensive backs) at San Diego State.
“There is a lot of support here at Cardinal Newman,” Sanchez said. “The experience at St. Augustine will help. The schools have similar pedigrees; they are both Catholic schools with a community.”
Cardinal Newman has 32 players on the varsity roster, with 15 seniors, but only a handful of returning starters. Lucas Knechtle, a senior, will be the new starter at quarterback.
“Cardinal Newman looks pretty good. They have some size over there,” Keegan said. “I don’t think they are going to miss a beat.”
Rancho Cotate, under coach Gehrig Hotaling, will be in the mix as well for the top spot in the NBL Oak Division, the stronger of the two divisions. After the NBL went through its competitive rebalance between the Oak and Redwood divisions prior to this season, the Oak is evenly stocked with competitive teams. West County (The new name of the merged Analy and El Molino high schools), Maria Carrillo and Ukiah may not be favored to win the NBL-Oak, but they will have a say in which team does and may pull out some surprise upset victories along the way.
“One of the positives of our school consolidation is there is an uptick in the number of players on our team right now (40 players),” West County coach Dan Bourdon said. The team, which does not officially have a mascot name, will play under a coaching staff combining Bourdon’s staff from Analy and El Molino’s former head coach, Jerod Brown, who is now an assistant head coach.
“We have a lot of potential on this team,” Bourdon said. “We play a really tough schedule. We are pretty solid at most positions and we have some depth at the skill positions.”
In the NBL-Redwood, the less competitive division, it should be a battle between Montgomery, Piner, St. Vincent and Santa Rosa. Healdsburg and Elsie Allen are in rebuilding mode, so moderate goals such as notching a few league wins would be a victory for these two programs.
“Our league will be competitive, and games won’t be one-sided,” Montgomery coach Vertis Patton said. “I’m glad the kids are happy and having fun. We are ready to compete and ready to get going.”
Three southern Sonoma County teams — Casa Grande, Sonoma Valley and Petaluma — compete in the Vine Valley Athletic League along with four schools from Napa County. Cloverdale, the northernmost Sonoma County high school, plays in the North Central League I with teams mostly from Mendocino and Lake counties.
Perhaps most importantly for Sonoma County’s football programs — and their players, parents, fans and coaches — is that a somewhat normal season is about to kick off. At least it’s normal for now.
“Kids are resilient, but at the end of the day, they are still kids,” Piner coach Terence Bell said about this season and the possibility of interruptions affecting players. “It feels like it is back to normal ... but it still kind of has that fragile feeling with the COVID-19 situation.”
For Cronin and other coaches, there seems to be a sense of happiness and relief that the season is starting as planned and a hope that their players get to play a full slate of games, including the postseason.
“Last year, you just feel for the seniors — we owed them more,” Cronin said. “This season there is more of a routine, way more normal than last year. We are hoping for a full season. You are just happy for the opportunities this year.”