Benefield: Playoff byes not always a blessing for Empire football teams

Kelseyville running back Adrian Villalobos (5) gets shoestrung by Clear Lake's Bobby Gonzalez (32) during the first half of a game between Clear Lake and Kelseyville high schools in Kelseyville on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


Beginning in 2014, the first year the North Coast Section Division 5 football playoff bracket was expanded from eight teams to 16, there have been 14 first-round byes. In other words, out of 32 potential first-round contests, there were only enough qualified teams to play in 18 games.

This year, like last year, the top four seeds won’t play in the first round. In 2015, it was the top five seeds who sat idle for two weeks.

That means top seed St. Patrick-St. Vincent, along with No. 2 Middletown, No. 3 Kelseyville and No. 4 Clear Lake, will all be sitting home Friday instead of playing football.

And area coaches are a little bummed out by the byes.

“I really don’t know anyone who would want a bye at this point in the season,” said Bill Foltmer, coach of the North Central I champion Middletown Mustangs (8-1 overall and 7-0 in NCLI).

The expansion of the bracket starting in 2014 makes for great stories, like Elsie Allen High making its first-ever postseason appearance in football Friday, thanks to a No. 12 seed. But are the slew of byes every year, along with teams with losing records making the playoffs, an indication that that bracket is too big?

We can make that argument, but it’s what participating schools wanted, NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon said.

“When we expanded Division 5, NCS staff spoke against it,” he said.

“These are things that have happened over the course of time, so our schools can’t complain that the brackets are too big. That’s the way they voted,” he said.

Presumably compounding the issue for this year only is the midseason decision to relax postseason requirements after the deadly wildfires last month canceled games for teams throughout the region. Teams that would not have made the cut in years past were given the OK this season after the argument was made that some could have reached the required .500 threshold but didn’t have the chance because of canceled games.

For instance, under the original rules, the No. 11 seed, Willits (1-8 overall, 1-5 NCLI), would not have made it, nor would No. 9 Cloverdale (3-6 overall, 2-5 in NCL I).

So it’s all left a handful of area coaches with some unwanted time on their hands.

“The biggest thing — it’s a daily thing — is I just try to keep the pace of practices up; don’t give them time to sit around,” Clear Lake coach Mark Cory said. “Once it slows down, especially this time of the season, it feels like you are wrestling a bear.”

Erick Larsen, head coach at Kelseyville, said he, too, is no fan of the week off this late in the season. Had his team — which finished 7-2 and 6-1 in NCL I — been riddled with injury, he might have a different opinion, but his guys are healthy.

“Year to year, I think it’s different, but this year we are healthy so I wish were playing,” he said.

That said, he warned against viewing this year, with the four byes, as the new norm.

“I do think that this is only a couple of years into the competitive adjustments of the divisions,” he said. “Let the systems work and let the divisions work themselves out.”

“In years past, Division 5 has been tough as nails,” he said.

Still, he and the Knights have to cool their heels waiting for the winner of No. 6 Fort Bragg vs. No. 11 Willits Friday.

“Nine times out of 10, I’d rather play and the kids feel the same way,” he said. “You can’t spend any energy on things you can’t control.”

So Larsen is seeking to make the bye a positive. He sees a chance to re-teach some things that can get lost in the grind of the season when each week means preparing for the next opponent.

At Middletown, Foltmer, too, said his guys are healthy. So he’ll spend time on conditioning and on keeping kids focused. That is no easy task when faced with nine or 10 consecutive practices without the carrot of a game to dangle in front of players.

Clear Lake’s Cory said most teams in the area have already endured one of those long stretches without a game this season when contests were canceled in the wake of the wildfires.

Many teams lost crucial stretches of practice then, too.

“I feel like we were back in a groove after all that,” he said of his No. 4 seed Clear Lake Cardinals, who finished tied for third in the NCL I.

“The biggest thing is, you have to try to improve this week,” he said. “You’ve got to get better.”

“I’d rather not have it, but it is what it is,” he said.

And what it is is the way schools wanted it.

So coaches are being asked to live with it.

“Hopefully it will make the kids more refreshed,” Cory said. “No excuses next Friday.”

Staff columnist Kerry Benefield is at 707-526-8671 or