After more than a year of discussions among high school coaches, athletic directors and principals, the new Sonoma County sports league alignments will make their debut season with football games Friday night.
Twelve teams from the new North Bay League’s Oak and Redwood divisions and three Sonoma County members of the newly formed Vine Valley League will open non-league play in nine games from Fairfield to Fortuna.
Most teams are familiar with their opening opponent, having played against each other in old configurations of the North Bay League or the now-defunct Sonoma County League. But come league play in a few weeks, some matchups will be brand new.
“It’s definitely a big change for us,” Analy coach James Foster said. “We have a completely different schedule, in terms of trying to win a league championship. It should be exciting.”
Early in 2017, three Napa County high schools — Napa, Vintage and American Canyon — asked the governing California Interscholastic Federation for permission to withdraw from the Sac-Joaquin Section and move to the North Coast Section, which includes Sonoma County schools and those farther north.
The Napa County schools said they wanted less travel time for their student-athletes but also more balanced competition.
Following multiple meetings, arguments and compromises, the NCS and CIF agreed, leading to a realignment that eliminated the SCL, created the new seven-team Vine Valley League and turned the NBL into a 12-team, two-division “super league.”
The biggest changes are for Petaluma, Casa Grande and Sonoma Valley, which moved to Vine Valley and will play against American Canyon, Justin-Siena, Napa and Vintage.
Alignments in the NBL will change by sport, designed to create competitive equity among large athletic powerhouse schools and generally smaller, less successful programs. The composition of the divisions, created after looking at the level of competition in individual sports over a five-year period, will be reconsidered every two years.
NBL commissioner Jan Smith Billing credited athletic directors with understanding other schools’ needs, not just their own.
“I met with all the fall-season coaches and they are also going into it with an open mind,” she said. “Some are very excited. Some are a little nervous about switching and playing other teams.
“I’m sure we’ll have glitches, but we’re giving it two years. We’re giving it a good shot.”
For the three teams headed to the Vine Valley League, it will mean a big change in travel. Petaluma football coach Rick Krist quipped that his team will no longer face heavy Highway 101 traffic, but Highway 37 slowdowns instead.
But he said he was generally pleased with the new league.
“When it first came out, I think there was a lot of community concern” about having to play the Napa schools, he said. “They are big schools. There’s a mismatch in some cases. In football, numbers mean a lot. Maybe not in baseball or basketball or noncontact sports. But it might when we are going to be facing teams with 50-60 kids on the sideline when we have 39.”
Then again, it may reduce blowout wins like Petaluma benefited from in the SCL last football season: 56-6 vs. Sonoma Valley, 50-19 vs. Piner, 56-21 vs. El Molino and 63-21 vs. Elsie Allen.
“It’s a huge challenge. Definitely, playing in the SCL there were times we had mismatched games. I don’t think that’s going to happen this year,” Krist said.
VINE VALLEY LEAGUE
NORTH BAY LEAGUE
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: WEEK 1
(all kickoffs 7:30 p.m. unless noted) Cardinal Newman at Fortuna
Analy vs. Santa Rosa
Rancho Cotate vs. Sacramento
Casa Grande at Windsor
Montgomery vs. Petaluma
Ukiah vs. Willits
Sonoma Valley at Cloverdale
Healdsburg vs. Drake
Piner at Rodriguez
Kelseyville at Stellar Prep, 7 p.m.
El Molino vs. St. Bernard, 2 p.m.
St. Helena at Arcata, 7 p.m.