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Welcome to playoff football. Or as it’s known in Fort Bragg and St. Helena, the eighth week of the NCL I regular season.

Fourteen days after their league-championship showdown, the Timberwolves and Saints will tee it up one more time this Friday night in the first round of the North Coast Section Division 4 bracket. It will almost certainly be another hard-fought and entertaining football game, but to Fort Bragg coach Roy Perkins it just doesn’t have that postseason atmosphere.

“I’m happier than hell we’re in the playoffs, and the challenge of playing St. Helena will be a quality game. They’re excellent coaches and they play good, clean football,” Perkins said. “But it would be nice to play a San Marin or someone we haven’t played before. Unfortunately, it seems what’s best for the kids is not a priority people seem to think about.”

Especially frustrating to Perkins is that the pairing of the NCL I’s top two teams in the first round is the latest falling domino in a chain reaction that began in September when football powerhouses Cardinal Newman and Marin Catholic announced they were withdrawing petitions to compete in Division 3, and instead would drop down to Division 4, where their enrollments properly placed them.

If the two Catholic schools had stayed put, Fort Bragg (10-0) presumably would be the No. 6 seed in D4, and would host Hercules this Friday. St. Helena (9-1) would have been the No. 7 seed, and would get a home game against Encinal. If the two Redwood Empire teams won those openers, each would have a fighting chance in the next round.

As it stands, Fort Bragg is the No. 8, St. Helena the No. 9, and the winner of their game will advance to take on top seed Marin Catholic, a program with nine section championships and experience playing much larger schools.

It didn’t sit well with Perkins when Cardinal Newman and Marin Catholic settled into Division 4, and it still doesn’t.

“Now of course as a coach I’m going to believe we can play St. Helena and win, then go to Marin Catholic and be extremely competitive,” Perkins said. “But it’s also sad that the decisions of Marin Catholic and Cardinal Newman greatly affect the kids I have. I’ve been coaching up here for 35 years. I have this great team, and I know there’s a very good chance they’ll experience a loss in their last game — and not against a team they should be playing.”

Perkins said he analyzed Newman’s 10-game schedule and found that the average enrollment of the Cardinals’ opponents was about 1,500 students. Marin Catholic’s opponents, he said, averaged about 1,400.

“And then they drop down and end up playing us, with 520 students?” Perkins said. “I don’t see how that’s good for football.”

St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell is more philosophical about his team’s draw.

“I will say, when you look ahead at the playoffs, it’s fun to look at how you might match up against teams you haven’t played before,” Farrell said. “In reality, we’re up against Fort Bragg and we have to deal with that. All in all, there’s that anticipation of playing somebody different. But whoever you get, you’d better play your best game.”

Farrell’s only quibble is with the administrators of the NCS and the larger California Interscholastic Federation. He believes there must be a better way to match up teams of similar strength, whether that means altering the makeup of divisions within the section or setting up an arrangement to play small schools from outside your section in the postseason.

“It’s not Marin Catholic’s fault or Cardinal Newman’s fault that they want to play in the division their enrollment is in,” Farrell said. “It also doesn’t make sense to look at them the same way.”

Farrell’s point is that the public high schools in St. Helena and Fort Bragg each draw from a population base of less than 10,000 people. Cardinal Newman’s enrollment is just 609. But as a private Catholic school with a strong sports tradition, it essentially draws from all over Sonoma County, an area with half a million residents.

Some states, including Texas, Virginia and Maryland, separate public and private schools in the postseason. Other states apply a multiplier to enrollment for private schools, artificially inflating their size. Alabama uses a multiplier of 1.35. In Illinois it’s 1.65. In Connecticut it’s 2.0. California make no distinction.

Politics aside, Timberwolves-Saints 2 should be an interesting sequel. Fort Bragg earned the NCL I title with a 27-14 win on Oct. 30, a surprisingly defensive game that was scoreless until the Timberwolves got a touchdown just before halftime.

Both teams came away with reason for optimism.

St. Helena knows it was one of the few teams to clamp down on Fort Bragg quarterback Kaylor Sullivan, who leads all of California with 3,750 passing yards. Sullivan completed just 6 of 15 passes for 36 yards and two interceptions in the first half against the Saints before finding his rhythm in the second half.

The Timberwolves, meanwhile, believe they made some adjustments at halftime of that game that should carry over to the rematch. Also, they get this one at home.

A couple other factors: Starting St. Helena halfback Jahaiver Otero, who tore his ACL, will not play Friday, just as he didn’t play on Oct. 30. And Saints defensive coordinator Matt Cia is away for the week, though he’ll stay involved via phone and computer.

You can bet that both of these proud programs will have some tricks up their sleeves, and will fight ferociously on game night. Playing at Marin Catholic in the second round is less than ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

“Our players are excited because it’s playoff football,” Farrell said. “We’ve kind of kept our focus at that. No matter if it’s a 1 seed versus a 16 seed, or 8 versus 9, it’s playoff football. In terms of playing Fort Bragg again, I think I’m more concerned with the fact they have really good players than whether we’re playing them for a second time or not.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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