Benefield: Sonoma Academy’s girls soccer team offers gesture of goodwill

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No coach in his right mind would do it.

You play all season long not only for league bragging rights but also to secure home-field advantage in the playoffs.

You fight and claw and grind for it. You don’t give it away.

Unless you are Sonoma Academy. Unless your coach is Chris Ziemer.

Ziemer gave it away for Wednesday night’s girls soccer game between top seed Sonoma Academy and fourth seed Middletown in a Division 3 semifinal showdown.

Here’s why.

Ziemer was in Middletown Saturday night to scout the game between Middletown and visiting Technology High. Makes sense, his team would play the winner Wednesday night.

For the first time since the Valley fire killed four people and destroyed 1,280 homes in Middletown and the surrounding communities, Ziemer saw what the area has been through.

“It hit me when I was in their community a little bit differently than I expected,” he said.

The effect was immediate.

“They had players on their team that lost their home and having me thinking about home-field advantage just didn’t seem right,” he said.

Six players on the soccer team lost their homes.

So, still sitting in the stands watching Middletown beat Tech 6-0, Ziemer had a thought that no clear-thinking coach would: He’d volunteer his team to hit the road instead of Middletown. He’d bring his squad the windy, hour-long drive across the county line and play on a narrow football field with a heck of a crown so that Middletown families would not have to travel, so that Middletown boosters could cheer on their team one last time this season — at home.

He reached his assistant principal. He texted his captains. All agreed: Sonoma Academy would bring the game to Middletown.

“I can’t look at it from a coaching perspective and have it make sense,” he said. “As a coach and a competitor, you do everything you can to gain advantages, not give them up.”

“It wasn’t a decision we took lightly. There are a lot of factors at stake,” he said. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Ziemer knew it would give the Coyotes — who practice and play on a home field of synthetic turf — a tougher go of it on Middletown’s field. He knew that some parents might grumble about making the drive. He knew his seniors might be peeved to lose out on their last chance to play at home wearing their high school jersey.

Except that nobody said boo. He didn’t hear a word of complaint.

“It’s bittersweet knowing I won’t play a home game,” said Sonoma Academy’s career goals leader and two-time defending All-Empire Small Schools player of the Year Chloe Colbert. “But I love that my coach, Chris, did this. I’m proud of him for making this decision.”

Middletown officials were dumbstruck.

“He’s putting his girls at a huge disadvantage by doing this for the sportsmanship piece of it. I can’t believe what he’s telling me,” said Middletown Principal Bill Roderick.

Ziemer pitched Roderick on the plan right there at the game Saturday night. By the time the final whistle blew, the plan was set and Ziemer was gone. He didn’t stick around to hear the fans cheer the news or see the Middletown players stop dead in their tracks in the middle of the game when the public address announcer told the crowd they’d have one more shot at seeing the Mustangs play at home.

“I was shocked,” Mustangs coach Amy Emerson said. “I didn’t know Chris was at the game. I thought maybe they made a mistake.”

“The Ziemers — they are great people. They are just good people,” she said.

In the wake of the fire, Roderick, who lost his home in the blaze, has been a vocal champion of Mustang athletics, of the power of sports to bring a community together. Wednesday night’s game is a grand gesture on that front.

“I really have no words for what he has done,” Airic Guerrero, Middletown’s athletic director, who also lost his home, said of Ziemer.

It’s not the only thing the small, private school has done for Middletown.

Sonoma Academy was behind a GoFundMe campaign that had raised more than $28,000 through Tuesday. But somehow, changing the location of the soccer game seems like an even grander gesture.

“It just shows there is a bond among athletes and coaches and this whole thing we call high school sports goes well beyond wins and losses,” Roderick said.

It’s no small thing, where a game is played. This is the North Coast Section tournament, lose and you’re out.

“I can’t equate this to any other sport,” Guerrero said. “What they are giving up is huge.”

Kaleigh Alves, a Middletown team captain, and first team all-North Central League I pick since she was a sophomore, will spend today before the game moving out of her grandparents’ house in Hidden Valley and into a rental. Her home burned down. At 5:30 she will suit up and play at home for the last time.

“I think it’s really sweet to think of us like that; giving up their home-field advantage, because that is really a factor in winning,” she said.

Ziemer knows. He didn’t make the decision lightly.

But make no mistake. The Coyotes, two-time defending NCS champions, are coming to play and they’re coming gunning to win. And a competitive game between athletes might just be another step in Middletown’s rebuilding efforts.

“Definitely once the whistle blows, we are both there to win. Both teams want the same thing,” said Kayja Mann, Sonoma Academy forward and one of three team captains. “The most we can do for each other is just play our hardest.”

Playing hard might be the most they can do, but it’s not the only thing. Ziemer and the Coyotes have already shown that.

Ziemer may not be of sound mind, switching venues like this, but he’s most assuredly of sound heart.

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

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