Benefield: Prep football realignment gives Santa Rosa a tougher task
This fall, Santa Rosa High’s football team knocked off the Cinderella team of the season — Piner High — in a late-season upset that gave the Panthers the North Bay League-Redwood Division champion’s pennant.
Their reward? Santa Rosa will be moved up to the significantly more robust NBL-Oak Division next fall to compete against the likes of newly crowned Division 3-AA state champs Cardinal Newman and Division 3-A state runners-up Rancho Cotate.
We all knew this was coming. This was a selling point of the two-division, so-called superleague structure approved by North Coast Section officials in 2017 when the Vine Valley Athletic League was created, the old Sonoma County League was disbanded and the NBL grew to include 12 schools in most sports.
The idea was always to fiddle with the divisions — move more successful teams up from Redwood to Oak and send down to Redwood the teams who struggled for wins in Oak. Think relegation and promotion in professional soccer — only this process was scheduled to happen every two years and after discussion with coaches and athletic directors, followed by a vote by principals.
That time is now — and the Panthers are the first team to move up, with the Analy Tigers the first team to move down. Among the fall sports, football’s new divisions were created first because football is the toughest sport to schedule. That means that schools are just now getting acclimated to their new surroundings.
“I do think it’s where we belong,” Analy athletic director Joe Ellwood said of the Tigers’ move to the Redwood Division.
After a run of success in the old SCL, the Tigers went 1-9 overall and 0-5 in the Oak Division this fall and 3-7 and 1-4 a year ago. Head coach James Foster stepped down at the end of the fall season.
Over in the Redwood Division, the Panthers went 4-6 overall and 3-0 in a wildfire-shortened schedule that included a 31-27 win against Piner in the division finale to win the title and earn a spot in the playoffs. The Panthers were 7-4 the year before and went 3-1 to finish second in the division behind Montgomery.
Those two seasons made Santa Rosa the most successful Redwood team over the two-year period under consideration as coaches, athletic directors and principals decide how the divisions would be realigned. The principals had the final say.
Those early discussions did not produce unanimous agreement.
North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing polled coaches, then met with athletic directors who backed a plan that would have kept Santa Rosa in Redwood and sent no team to Oak, creating a five-team Redwood Division and an eight-team Oak Division.
The idea was not to slight Santa Rosa, but to acknowledge that the Panthers may struggle to be competitive in the more robust Oak Division — something Santa Rosa High officials made no bones about.
“We were comfortable in the Redwood; I think we compete better in the Redwood,” newly announced head coach Roy Keegan said. “If someone had to go, it definitely had to be us. But competitive-wise, we are better off in the Redwood, just with the makeup of our team.”
That’s not just Santa Rosa looking out for Santa Rosa — it’s an argument that holds water with other officials.