Benefield: Small-school girls soccer adjusting to schedule headaches

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What did Robert Burns say about the best-laid plans? Something about going askew?

The folks who crafted the fall girls soccer schedules for the small schools that make up the North Central League II and III might know a little something about things going askew despite all good intentions.

The fall soccer schedule, ever-thinner as more programs move to winter, was built around the expected addition of one school to bring the total to an even number: 12.

But that was deemed unmanageable for several reasons, not the least of which was scheduling. A league with 10 or 12 opponents would put teams nearly at the limit for number of games per season before even taking into account preseason and postseason play.

“That was a big thing, putting some wiggle room in your schedule so you can go out and pick and choose who you are going to play in your division,” said Scott McKeon, athletic director at Technology High in Rohnert Park.

Well, the teams of the new NCL II and NCL III have a little more wiggle room than expected after both Point Arena and Rincon Valley Christian did not have enough athletes to form an all-girls team, so they instead will field co-ed squads.

So now both the NCL II and NCL III will have unexpected byes on the calendar, unless coaches can fill the gaps.

“Well, it’s part of life,” said Coastal Mountain Commissioner Robert Pinoli.

“We learn to live with things like this,” he said. “All you can do is plan that everybody is going to have teams. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”

Schools with smaller enrollment numbers can be felled by one injury, or one student-athlete who fails to make grades. An entire team’s season can hang in the balance.

“You don’t know year to year or week to week — or damn near day to day if you have a team,” Pinoli said.

That said, the North Central Leagues are this season divided into NCL II and NCL III, with each division competing for a league title and each league winner earning a berth into the postseason.

NCL II will be comprised of St. Vincent, Credo, Anderson Valley, Tomales and Roseland Collegiate Prep. NCL III will include Technology, Roseland University Prep, Calistoga, Mendocino and Upper Lake.

But to keep things somewhat familiar, squads from the two leagues are scheduled to meet in these early preseason weeks before league play begins Sept. 26.

Even in these early days, the top squads are making their presence known and the Tech High Titans are the team to beat.

They were 5-0 headed into Wednesday night’s contest on the road at Tomales.

The Titans went 18-4 last year and 14-2 in league — stumbling only to champs St. Vincent. In the postseason, Technology — with an enrollment of 326, according to last year’s state records — was felled on the road 6-3 by the Loggers of Eureka, a school with 1,130 in the Division 1 North Coast Section semifinals.

It was a position that befuddled coach Melissa Knoll.

“It didn’t make sense,” she said of the Titans’ Division 1 placement.

This year they are in Division 3 with the likes of Upper Lake, Roseland Collegiate Prep, Credo, Mendocino and St. Vincent. The enrollment window for Division 3 this year is 349 students and fewer, and for Division 1, it’s all schools with an enrollment of 350 or more.

“Now we are back where we should be, as far as I’m concerned,” Knoll said.

But the silver lining to last year’s experience is that a fire was lit.

The Titans have a roster loaded with veterans — players who didn’t entirely enjoy that playoff experience.

“We traveled all the way to Eureka, there and back in one night,” Knoll said. “These eight seniors have been waiting for this. I think they know this is their year to win it all,” she said.

Behind a defense made up of veterans, the Titans have allowed just one goal in five games while scoring 28.

Four-year starting goalkeeper Danielle Baker commands a back line with Madeline Quigley, Zara Walton, Angela Todt and Miranda Amezcua-Espinoza.

“My defense has kind of stayed the same the past couple of seasons,” she said. Clearly it’s a combination that is working.

On offense, the team is led by senior and returning league MVP Kayli Worden.

“What doesn’t she do?” Knoll said. “She’s usually our leading scorer and she usually leads us in assists as well.”

In other corners of competition, perennial favorite and defending champs St. Vincent are having a bit of a rebuilding season. The team made up of a slew of seniors that scored 110 goals while allowing just five (in an undefeated season that ended with the Mustangs hoisting the Division III North Coast Section banner) is no longer there.

The good news is that the Mustangs are in the new NCL II, so they won’t have to face Tech in league.

“We have a lot of expectations, but we have to be realistic. This team is a new team,” first-year coach Tomas Morales said. In years past, the roster has had at least a handful of players who compete year round — that is down to one or two this year, he said.

Adding to his assignment is their foes’ desire to put a mark on St. Vincent after years of getting bested by the Mustangs.

“They are celebrating like it’s the World Cup,” he said.

But Morales like his group and believes they can compete.

“Anyone can beat anyone on any given day,” he said.

In the NCL III, the team likely to give Tech the toughest run for the title will be Upper Lake.

“I think this is probably the best girls soccer team that has ever come through Upper Lake,” coach Daniella Santana said.

The Cougars are 4-4 with key early wins against St. Vincent and Clear Lake. But it was the squad’s perseverance against NCL I juggernaut Middletown that showed Santana what might be this season.

“At our tournament at the beginning of the season against Middletown and St. Bernard’s, they held their own,” Santana said.

But coaches said the new structure of league play and tinkering with postseason division placement have left many feeling like they are still finding their way.

And way-finding can sometimes mean way-losing. Just ask the group Robert Pinoli put together to create the new configuration, only to lose teams at the last minute. Or Morales, tasked with rebuilding a once-vaunted program.

Or Robert Burns and his displaced field mouse.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men, go often askew …”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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