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Benefield: Prep football realignment gives Santa Rosa a tougher task

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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.

“I was in support of Santa Rosa staying in Redwood,” Ellwood said.

The Tigers are a pretty good example here. They were tremendously successful in the old SCL, but after a coaching change, then a league change, they hit hard times. The Panthers could face the same two-year fate.

With that in mind, athletic directors proposed moving from six- and seven-team divisions (St. Vincent de Paul of Petaluma will be added to the football mix beginning in the 2020 season) to a five- and eight-team split, with just five teams in the Oak and eight in the Redwood. That arrangement would have added St. Vincent to Redwood, moved Analy from Oak to Redwood and allowed Santa Rosa to stay put.

With two proposals in front of them, principals voted 9-3 for the six- and seven-team divisions that swapped Analy and Santa Rosa and added St. Vincent to Redwood. Principals from Santa Rosa, Analy and El Molino voted for the divisions of five and eight teams — keeping Santa Rosa in Redwood — while the rest voted for a more even split.

The practicality of having more than five teams in a division — think having to schedule six preseason games instead of, say, four — won out. And there is logic to it. Even those who voted against that split say it makes sense.

“I’m not discounting that argument at all. It is difficult,” Ellwood said of filling up those 10-game schedules with viable games. “But I truly believe that the competitive equity of our league and our divisions is the most important thing. That is what we are supposed to do.”

And this will not just be a debate for football programs. There are plenty of sports for which a reshuffle is called for. Think girls soccer, where Santa Rosa and Rancho are a step or two ahead of the competition in Redwood and both could make an argument for moving to Oak. There is talk among boys soccer coaches about combining the divisions into one and letting each team face each other once instead of twice.

And without question, Cardinal Newman and Rancho Cotate are the class of the area in football. No team in recent years has been able to knock either of the two off their perch at the top. So any other team in Oak, if recent history is to be believed, is in a race for third place.

“I think there are really two different tiers,” Piner athletic director Marc Anderson said of area football programs.

Cardinal Newman and Rancho Cotate are consistently good, but other programs ebb and flow depending on their annual rosters.

Piner is no different, he said. The Prospectors had a dazzling season, going 11-2 overall and making the playoffs. But one of the reasons it was so thrilling was that it had been a long time since Piner had enjoyed that kind of success in football. Their senior class was something special this season and not likely to be replicated any time soon.

In that way, for many programs, it can feel something like a rollercoaster from year to year.

“We go from Yonaton (Isack) to not knowing who is going to be the quarterback,” Anderson said.

Keegan agreed.

“In high school football, you never know what you are going to have,” he said.

So this prediction game can be tricky. No one argues that point.

“I think the initial response was, you know, this could be tough for us,” Santa Rosa assistant athletic director Kenny Knowlton said.

But he’s finding the positives.

“It’s an honor for our kids to play at a little higher level,” he said. “Granted, we are going to take our lumps.”

Keegan, in his first weeks on the job, said it’s his job to rally the troops, no matter where they play.

“We have talked about it already,” he said. “It’s, ‘Hey, our success in the past has got us to this point and we have to put our big boy pants on.’ Every game on our schedule is tough.”

In that, he is not kidding. The Panthers open league play Oct. 9 at home against Rancho Cotate. They wrap up league competition Nov. 6 at Cardinal Newman.

All of that said, no one ever said this would be easy. And no one ever said that there might not be some internal conflict between, perhaps, what is best for one team and what is best for the league as a whole. But all parties this week had praise for the process — even if, for some, it didn’t turn out as they had hoped this time around.

“I applaud the professionalism and (collegiality) of the ADs. We talked about it a lot, in great depth,” Analy’s Ellwood said. “I liked the process.”

“I thought the process was fair,” Anderson said.

But there is no doubt it will be tough sledding for Santa Rosa. That said, Keegan is pitching the move to his team — he’s got 40 kids showing up to conditioning sessions — as the reward for their two-year record.

“We are going to show up each week and give it our best,” he said.

That’s all any coach can ask.

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

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