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The wave is coming; do we want to be on it or under it?

That was how the question of whether to move boys soccer to the winter was described by Analy High School Principal Chris Heller.

It’s an apt description.

The wave pushing high school soccer to the winter season does seem to be cresting and it most certainly will give some larger, more competitive programs a better ride. But other teams and schools could very well get ground into the surf.

“Whether we are on top of the wave or below, the wave is coming,” Heller said. “Within the next two or three years, I think, it is inevitable that winter soccer is going to be here.”

At a special meeting at Piner High School Thursday, administrative representatives from the seven Sonoma County League schools voted 4-3 to move boys soccer from fall to winter for 2016-17 and to leave girls in the fall.

The debate wasn’t long or heated. Very few people were there in Piner’s auditorium. In fact, Piner’s athletic director Trish Delzell was critical of the timing of the meeting, saying parents and students could not reasonably be expected to attend at 7:30 a.m.

But like a wave building up off shore, this move has been debated for years. It reached a fever pitch in January when the North Bay League pulled up stakes and moved its boys season to the winter, leaving their cross-county rival scrambling — and with very few folks to play this fall.

“If the trend is going to winter and we don’t go, our kids will be put in position to travel farther,” said Andrew Ryan, assistant principal at Sonoma Valley High School. “Schools closest to us in the North Bay League are in the winter.”

The implications of the 4-3 vote to move are significant and myriad — and they differ from school to school. Analy, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Sonoma voted to move. El Molino, Elsie Allen and Piner voted to stay. A separate vote was taken to keep girls soccer in the fall, since their cross-county competitors in the NBL still play during that time of year.

“It’s tricky for principals to work through this,” said Petaluma Principal David Stirrat.

Petaluma is a good place to start. The Trojan boys won the North Coast Section championship last weekend, besting a fall Division 1 tournament field that included Fort Bragg, Kelseyville and eventual runner-up Fortuna. In football, all three of those schools are considered Division 4 and Petaluma is Division 3. In football, a Division 1 school’s enrollment has to top 2,000 students. In soccer this fall, D1 was considered 476 students or more.

That’s not the cream of the crop.

“When the NBL moved boys to winter, we were left with what we have now,” Stirrat said.

The Marin County Athletic League has also moved soccer to winter in the last year.

In the NCS this year, 74 schools play boys soccer in the fall and 81 schools play in winter. On the girls side, 48 schools play in the fall and 76 schools play in the winter.

Prior to the NBL and MCAL moves this season, the NCS tournament was dominated by those two leagues. Since 1996, an NBL team has won the NCS soccer championship 11 times; an MCAL team has won it seven times. On the girls side, the competition barely gets out of one league. The last five NCS championships have featured two teams: Maria Carrillo and Montgomery, and Carrillo has won all five titles.

“I’m not sure that (is) the best soccer bracket final for our section,” Heller said.

Several of the administrators talked of competition, of putting their kids in the position to play better and more varied squads. That was the lead argument when the NBL moved this season.

“Our boys soccer program has been very competitive in the fall,” Sonoma Valley’s Ryan said. “I would like to see how they would hold up against some of those teams.”

But talk of an eventual, true CIF state soccer championship seems premature. Soccer is, oddly, still played in three seasons in California. We are all over the map and whether the SCL or the Humboldt-Del Norte conference moves isn’t going to change that.

“Scattered” is the word El Molino Principal Matt Dunkle used.

“It would be nice if the state of California and the CIF ... could make things uniform and standard across the board,” he said.

Instead, there is the scatter-shot approach. And that’s not a criticism of principals forced to make a difficult decision — one based on guesswork and rumor about what other districts and sections will do.

And not all campuses are created equal.

Sonoma Valley has a grass field, as does Healdsburg. With an El Niño winter predicted, it could get messy.

And what about lights? Piner’s been working for years to get them but they are still in the dark. And other schools are limited as to the number of times they can turn theirs on. The NBL, in its first year of winter play, is on the cusp of answering all of these questions for curious minds. Some rough patches — some literal — are expected.

And a wild card remains with uber-popular club soccer.

Athletes who play both club and high school soccer cannot play both during the winter because that is considered by the CIF the official season of the sport.

Many officials said Thursday that clubs had already adjusted their schedule to accommodate winter high school soccer, but the result was boys on SCL squads getting overloaded in the fall.

“Playing in the fall, we were sharing kids with club. It’s not fair to the boys,” said Petaluma coach Greg Lamansky. “What is happening now is the clubs will be able to shut down in the winter and allow the kids to play.”

“I’m very happy,” he said.

As it is, NBL coaches have been without some of their top players in early scrimmages this season because club soccer is only now winding down for the winter.

With all of these factors at play, some of the smaller schools in the SCL are less enthused about the move.

El Molino’s girls squad had their deepest run in the tournament in years — or perhaps ever — because they were able to play schools with comparable enrollment in their preseason and secure a spot in the Division 3 tournament.

“With the games we played outside the SCL, we did very well record-wise,” Dunkle said.

An eventual move for them would threaten to take away small-school competition that still plays in the fall.

But for now, the girls will stay put, largely because the NBL is still playing girls soccer in the fall. If a move is to be made with girls, it’s better to do it at the same time as the NBL, rather than in the bifurcated way the boys were handled, SCL officials agreed.

“This is one I think we should be working in concert with the NBL,” Stirrat said. “If one league moves, it makes it more likely to move. They are our natural competition.”

With Thursday’s vote putting the SCL boys into the winter mix, the NBL’s inaugural winter run right now takes on added importance. Lots of eyes will watching how this winter experiment unfolds.

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

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