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Benefield: Cross country shakeup raises questions

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Luis Rosales did not mince words.

Now that the new North Bay League cross country divisions have been settled for next fall and the Oak Division is down to five teams, would the longtime Piner High coach be open to moving to center meets — where all teams show up every time to the same course — rather than the smaller, head-to-head matchups on courses around Sonoma County?

“Hell no. No way,” Rosales said.

It’s hard to blame him. Piner’s home course at Foothill Regional Park is a bear. And that’s the way Rosales likes it.

“Our course is a huge advantage to us. I would be a fool to give that up,” he said. “Our course kicks people’s butts.”

As athletes and teams approach the third season of the new two-division North Bay League, cross country presents a somewhat unique scheduling challenge. The location, format and timing of league competition is more in flux than in other sports because of the nature of the sport and because of how the divisions shook out after the first two seasons.

Luckily, the timing of cross country is such that there is less pressure to find out-of-conference competition at the same rate as, say, football.

In the new divisional configuration, expected to be approved by the North Coast Section alignment and classification committee on Feb. 11, five schools will compete in the more robust Oak Division: perennial favorite Maria Carrillo, along with Piner, Santa Rosa, Montgomery and Windsor — a squad that was elevated from the Redwood Division after winning that league two years running.

In Redwood, the lineup now stands at eight programs: Analy, Cardinal Newman, El Molino, Elsie Allen, Healdsburg, Rancho Cotate, Ukiah and NBL newcomer St. Vincent.

Now to be sorted? Some not-so-insignificant details. The Redwood Division has the numbers for a series of dual and tri-meets, but with just five schools in Oak, NBL commissioner Jan Smith Billing was set to make a preliminary suggestion for center meets, where all teams face off in a mass meet a couple of times a season.

Rosales, for one, is not a fan of that idea. Center meets take away home courses for every team other than those that use Spring Lake Regional Park. And that puts team like Piner at a disadvantage. See above.

You know who does like the idea of center meets? Greg Fogg, the longtime coach at Maria Carrillo. The Pumas have had a yearslong run of success. The boys won the Division 3 NCS title last fall and came in second in the CIF state cross country championships while senior Colton Swinth ran to an individual title.

A self-proclaimed data guy, Fogg said he likes the notion of there being a consistent location for league meets, thereby giving coaches a consistent way to measure runners’ progress.

“Spring Lake is our go-to course. The measuring stick for success is Spring Lake,” he said. “You can compare your time early season, midseason and late season. Call me boring — that is kind of more data-driven type of coaching than ‘Hey, wasn’t that a beautiful course? Didn’t we really enjoy that?’

“Get your variety in your training,” he said.

So while Rosales will vigorously guard the use of his hilly Foothill Regional Park course, Fogg is likely to pitch the benefits of staying at Spring Lake and center meets. But one gets the feeling there won’t be fisticuffs when the coaches sit down to meet and hash it out after the conclusion of track season. Local cross country coaches don’t strike me as a fisticuff-y crew.

Fogg knows he’s likely in the minority in being a fan of center meets. And he acknowledges that his Pumas have long emphasized more training and less racing, so his selling points not might gain much purchase with his fellow coaches.

“League we kind of blow through and train through league because we are all about November,” he said.

But like Piner, the Santa Rosa Panthers have long held a competitive view of league meets and put real value on those North Bay League matchups.

And Brandon Bronzan, head coach at Windsor, whose Jaguars were recently elevated to the Oak Division by virtue of winning the Redwood Division two years running, said he’s a fan of duals.

“Personally, I like dual meets,” he said. “I like going up against another team.”

And despite almost certainly forgoing a chance for a third league pennant now that the Jags are racing in Oak, Bronzan likes where his team sits.

“The bottom line is that Carrillo is the juggernaut,” he said. “The realization is that we are not going to win that, but you want to build a good program, so that’s who you want to compete against. That’s the way I look at it.”

That’s the way Fogg sees it, too.

“If I had my way, I would still keep the teams mixed up,” he said, meaning he wouldn’t divide the teams in two according to strength of rosters, he’d do more mixing and matching, perhaps based a little bit on travel time between schools.

The way to grow the sport locally is for less-established teams to be exposed to more robust programs, Fogg said.

“I think it’s healthy for a team to see what the next level looks like,” he said.

Bronzan, the newcomer to the group, doesn’t disagree and it sounds like he’s not shying away from the kind of racing the Oak Division will offer.

“The program that we have and the kind of program we want to build, we want to be in Oak,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think we are where we want to be.”

So teams may be where they want to be, but where they race is still up for a bit of debate.

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.

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