Benefield: Too much home-field advantage?

Home is where the heart is.

It is also where the supportive crowd is, where the snack bar profit is and where the home announcer is. Home is where the warm-up music is familiar and the comfort level is high, where the playing surface is known like the back of one’s hand and where chanting from the crowd is decidedly friendly.

There may be debate about whether it is right and proper to host a North Coast Section championship game on the campus of one of the participating teams instead of a third-party site, but there is no debate over whether playing at home is an advantage for one team over another.

“Personally, I don’t like the idea of playing the NCS championship game at a home school site,” said North Bay League commissioner Jan Smith-Billing. “I think it gives an unfair advantage for the home school.”

Whether it was the home field or something else, the No. 2 seed Acalanes Dons came away with the NCS Div. 2 boys soccer champions’ plaque Saturday night, beating the No. 5 seed Montgomery Vikings 1-0 in double overtime. The game was played on the Dons’ home field in Lafayette, about 70 miles from Montgomery’s campus.

In other boys’ championship games, no team played on their home field. The Div. 1 game between No. 5 Berkeley and No. 3 De La Salle was played at Dublin High (which was the 11th seed). Dublin High is 29 miles from Berkeley and 22 miles from De La Salle. The Div. 3 game between No. 1 University and No. 2?Marin Academy was played at Beach Chalet Fields in San Francisco, a 5.2-mile drive from University and an 18-mile drive from Marin Academy. University played at Beach Chalet three times this season, once as visitor and twice as the home team, but they also have a campus field.

In Div. 2, Acalanes officials offered their campus as potential host for the final game. No other area school did, officials said.

“In this case, nobody signed up in the geographical area of Acalanes to be a designated site,” Smith-Billing said. “According to Karen (Smith, North Coast Section associate commissioner), the only place left to play in the area was Acalanes. That’s just the way it turned out. It’s unfortunate.”

“Not to take away from Acalanes,” she said. “It was an incredible game.”

That it was. It was a scoreless tie after 80 minutes of regulation. Still tied at zero after the first golden goal overtime period, the teams went to a second 10-minute period. With two minutes to play, the Dons got the game winner. Scores of students flooded the field in celebration as many of the Vikings collapsed in despair.

And then the Vikings, and their band of supporters, were faced with a 90-minute drive home.

“I think it’s a huge advantage to be on your home field. I speak from experience; we were undefeated on our field this year. Nobody beat us,” said Vikings coach Jon Schwan.

Schwan admits it’s a pretty good problem to have - debating where the championship game should be held. But he contends that after a playoff run in which the higher seed always plays at home against presumably weaker opponents by way of seeding, the advantage to playing the biggest game of the season on home turf is just too great, that a neutral site for the final game makes more sense.

Football championships are played on neutral sites. So, too, are the basketball finals.

“If you are going to predetermine a site ... find a school that isn’t in the playoffs and make it there,” Schwan said.

It’s not that simple, the NCS’s Smith said.

Football and basketball have to consider attendance capacity, she said. For soccer, which has never sold out a championship game, that is not an issue.

And weird things happen, too. Look at the Montgomery boys basketball game being played at home tonight. Montgomery is the No. 7 seed but will host No. 6?Tamalpais because the Red Tailed Hawks’ gym was deemed too small for a playoff game.

Last fall, the No. 2 seed in Div. 5 football Fort Bragg Timberwolves had to travel 177 miles south to play the No. 5 seed St. Patrick-St. Vincent Bruins in the championship game after Fort Bragg officials didn’t apply to host a game and no field within their geographic area could be secured.

NCS rules called for the game to be played in the geographic area of the lower seed.

And Smith makes it clear - soccer championships are held at designated sites, not neutral sites. The blue and white streamers throughout the stands and the raucous pro-Dons cheering Saturday showed as much.

There are practical matters at play, of course.

The financial incentive to host a game in which a school has no vested interest is minimal. The school does not get the gate revenue, but they do get snack bar profits. The school also gets a stipend to support ticket takers, clock operators and others who may or may not volunteer. They do not pay the full site fee that a school can charge an outside group to use a gym or field.

The NCS can’t force a school to play host. That said, basketball finals have been played at St. Mary’s College and Santa Rosa Junior College. Football finals have been played at Diablo Valley College. Soccer fields would be even easier to secure because there are fewer competing interests, since college soccer is played in the fall.

“I understand (schools being) not willing to host because it’s huge,” Smith-Billing said. “The NCS gives a stipend but I’m talking little.”

Clearly, not all schools are willing to do it.

“It’s not that everybody is clamoring to host,” Smith said. “It’s a burden on the facility. We pay them to run it but it’s not a lucrative business.”

What about a site somewhere between the two schools?

“We don’t do halfway,” Smith said. “We will not do that anymore. Several years with basketball we did the kind of meet-in-the-middle thing. It was a disaster. No one showed. At least this way, we get a good crowd.”

To that end, other sports have moved in the opposite direction - volleyball and lacrosse title games for years have been held at the home of the higher seed, she said. “It creates a bigger crowd, more of a championship atmosphere,” Smith said.

Schwan, Smith-Billing and others argue it’s an atmosphere decidedly tilted in the favor of one team over another. For the games leading up to the championship, it makes practical sense, but for the final they contend NCS should make adjustments to secure a playing field to which no team has a particular tie.

Done right, it just might elevate the game even further - give it a championship atmosphere that is a true balance of boosters and teams.

It’s hard to argue against the logic.

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

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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