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Benefield: High school football games shouldn't end like Sonoma Valley's did against Petaluma

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It was the dancing that got me. And the clapping. And the chest thumping.

An on-field melee had broken out in the fourth quarter of Sonoma Valley’s football game against Petaluma High. When the dust settled, distraught officials huddled on the field trying to determine how to proceed. At the same time, Sonoma Valley coaches exhorted their kids to head back to their bench. It’s in those moments that the video footage from the game clearly shows Sonoma Valley players celebrating the brawl in much the same way they’d celebrate a sack or an interception.

That’s a problem.

Eight Sonoma Valley Dragons were tossed from the game — a punishment that renders them ineligible to play in this Friday’s game against Vintage. The Dragons, down too many players, were forced to forfeit that game. Their season is over. Even the junior varsity game for Friday was canceled.

Petaluma had one player ejected. The Trojans will play at Vine Valley Athletic League foe American Canyon on Friday.

The season for both teams is tarnished. Officials from both schools said they hoped the incident would not be associated with their respective programs.

But when you see footage of what happened, it’s hard to unsee.

This is how it happened: It was a contest between two teams that have been roughed up some this season. The Dragons came in 1-7 and having been outscored 277-19 in their last five outings. The Trojans were 1-6 and they, too, were trying to break a five-game skid.

Both teams saw the game as winnable and both sides acknowledge it was chippy from the outset.

But with 11 minutes to play in the fourth quarter and the Dragons kicking a short pooch kick to follow a touchdown that made it 35-14 in favor of the Trojans, the game descended into chaos.

(See it beginning at 2:10:44)

The Petaluma player back to receive the kick does not signal for a fair catch, but he takes a knee immediately upon catching the ball. He is then drilled from his left side by a Dragon sprinting full tilt. Another Dragon hits him straight on. Then the scene becomes a sea of white jerseys, black jerseys and soon enough, yellow penalty flags.

The initial play unfolds near the Dragons’ sideline, but, as chaos is wont to do, it moves and grows and spins off into smaller altercations.

Soon, Dragons coaches are on the field and Dragons players leave the sideline. No Petaluma High player was cited for leaving the bench and head coach Rick Krist insists that none of his players did. From the video, it’s hard to judge how long the fighting continues, but for anyone who roots for Sonoma Valley or Petaluma or high school football, it feels interminable.

And then the celebrating. From the vantage point provided by the SonomaValleyTV channel on YouTube (whose cameras are all stationed high above the Sonoma Valley side), it is the Dragons who are doing the celebrating.

It’s a difficult peeling back of the layers of what happened, largely because football asks for passion from players, it asks for gritty, dirty work on behalf of the team and it asks for, yes, violence. So in watching those boys dance and celebrate the brawl that unfolded, it made me wonder if they understand the difference between what the game asks of them between whistles and what it will punish them for after.

In the video, I see players celebrating as if they’d made a great play or if their team had won. Neither happened. The Dragons made a late, penalty-worthy hit, chaos ensued and a large enough number of players were ejected that the game was halted for safety reasons. They lost.

In the ensuing days, there has been conferencing, reports given and inquiries made. Passions, once at a fever pitch, have cooled.

North Coast Section Commissioner Pat Cruickshank said Tuesday he had concluded his review.

“I think there are always two parties involved, but it’s pretty clear from what we have gotten that Sonoma Valley may have been the more aggressive group,” he said.

He declined to provide the officials’ summary of the brawl and the ejection statement, but he praised both schools in how they have handled the days that have followed.

“I really feel that both schools have acted in a very professional manner and have done their due diligence,” he said.

Hervy Williams, the first-year coach of Sonoma Valley, said the entire varsity team will participate in a program conducted by the Positive Coaching Alliance.

Williams, who was both defensive of his kids and vowed to do better, said the Dragons were complaining all night that penalties were going uncalled and this his players reported being “roughed up.”

“I think the weight of the whole season came down on … both sides, to be honest,” he said.

Sonoma Valley first-year principal Alberto Solorzano was at the game Friday and participated in the on-field meeting which ended with the game being called.

“Everybody is going to have an opinion of calls that weren’t being made or calls that were too strict,” he said, adding that he agreed with the decision to end the game early.

“They just need to be taught better ways to not engage, to let the officials call the game and let the coaches call the game,” he said. “As a school, we take responsibility for making sure our student-athletes respond appropriately.”

Solorzano reiterated that one incident should not besmirch the football program or the school.

“It’s a learning opportunity. They are still good kids. I love them very much,” he said. “(Players) came up to me and apologized for their behavior. They are remorseful.”

Williams insisted his team wasn’t entirely at fault. And he surmised that players followed him onto the field when he went out to pull kids apart.

“I assume they started coming when I (went),” he said.

“I didn’t know our assistants were coming on as well,” he said. “I was trying to separate kids.”

If he could replay the moment, he said, he would have turned toward his sideline and told his team to stay back.

“What I don’t want is that to be the thing that people remember about our football season,” he said. “We are really young. That’s not what I want.”

First-year Petaluma Principal Justin Mori, who held that post at Sonoma Valley last year, was also at the game and said no Trojans left their bench.

“It definitely shows their strength of character and their respect for coaches and I also think it reflects the strength of our coaching staff,” Mori said.

“For the most part, our players are trying to get off the field and get out of the situation,” he said.

Petaluma coach Krist said the game could have been reigned in earlier. And he also said he felt he knew what was coming even before the kickoff, but would not provide specifics.

“I saw different things in scouting, games prior to that,” he said. “I knew that there were things that made me nervous. I told the kids that we are having a struggling year, as well as they are having a struggling year. Traditionally, that happens late in the season. As coaches, we have to make sure we have control of our kids.”

“I also felt that adults had a lot to do with this outcome,” he said. “I don’t think (players) were protected. It’s not all on the kids.”

Krist, who has been at this three decades, repeatedly said that his team was not perfect, but that “my kids acted as best as you could ever ask for.”

And never in his 30 years of coaching has he seen a bench empty like it did Friday night.

“It could have been much worse if our kids had reacted differently,” he said.

I asked both coaches how they help kids navigate getting fired up for competition and, in the parlance of so many coaches, “going to war” with a teammate, and behaving within the bounds of both the rules of the game and civil competition. I asked them how coaches teach the difference between a fighting attitude and fighting. And how they teach giving your all but holding back when it’s the right thing to do.

Both acknowledged it’s a difficult assignment.

“It’s a fine line,” Krist said. “It’s a tough thing.”

Williams said teaching kids what to do in the case of tempers flaring and a fight erupting into a brawl is almost like preparing for an earthquake — we all do it once, but what happens when the temblor hits 10 years later and everyone forgets the lesson and is left to their most basic instinct of survival?

“It’s not something that comes up very often,” he said. “There is no explaining for not teaching it.”

It makes me think that locker rooms could use a little less talk of going to war and a little more from the likes of the late Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Do better.

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