Southern Sonoma County high schools debut in new Empire football league Friday

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There’s a new high school football competition in the Redwood Empire and it’s called the Vine Valley Athletic League.

Friday is the opening night of VVAL games and a slate of three contests will be played at 7 p.m. in the newly created league: Petaluma at American Canyon, Justin-Siena (Napa) at Casa Grande and Sonoma Valley at Napa. Vintage of Napa has a bye week.

The tectonic shift in athletic leagues this year eliminated the former Sonoma County League, enlarged and split the former North Bay League into the North Bay League Oak division and North Bay League Redwood division.

It also created the VVAL, with three teams from Sonoma County and four from Napa County. The Gauchos came from the old NBL and the Dragons and Trojans from the SCL.

In interviews, the coaches for the three Sonoma County teams all said they weren’t happy with how the league realignments ended up for various reasons, but would move forward the best they could under the new arrangement.

“I was one of the coaches against the realignment. I liked everything in the NBL and playing locally,” Casa Grande coach Denis Brunk said. “But I am still going to embrace the new league and I am excited to play new teams and see new programs.”

One concern mentioned by all three coaches is the grinding commute to Napa County that will take place during Friday night rush hour on Highway 37.

“The travel is going to be tough,” Petaluma coach Rick Krist said. “I was not for the new league, but we are making the best of it. Something needed to happen in terms of the leagues. There were a lot of proposals and they (athletic and school administrators) did the best that they could.”

There is a sense among the three coaches that the VVAL will be a league — at least for football — that is chock-full of parity.

“Overall, the games are going to be closer. Everyone is going to feel they have a shot every week. It makes it a little more exciting,” Krist said. “The entire VVAL is a much stronger league (than the SCL) in football and many sports. Over the course of time, a lot of teams will get to have the feeling of being a champion.”

Krist said the new leagues were based on geography rather than competitive balance or school size.

The VVAL has a mixture of big and small schools. Vintage and Napa are North Coast Section Division 1 schools, Casa Grande and American Canyon are Division 2, Petaluma and Sonoma Valley are Division 3 and Justin-Siena is Division 4.

“I was not a big fan of the realignment. It is what it is, so we will deal with it. You have got to go with the decision that is made,” Sonoma Valley coach Bob Midgley said. “We are playing some big schools with some big rosters. I think this league will be tougher than the SCL. Some of the schools have more raw speed and are bigger than the SCL.”

For the Gauchos, the switch to the VVAL is more of a lateral move as far as talent, compared to the former NBL, Brunk said.

“I liked the NBL; it was very competitive. It’s going to be an adjustment not playing the teams we normally used to. It’s going to be different,” Brunk said. “I’m going to miss playing teams like Cardinal Newman, Montgomery and Rancho Cotate.

“I know a lot of those coaches and now I’m not going to see them every year. I’m going to try and schedule them (old NBL teams) every year in the pre-season.”

One positive of the VVAL is that it reconnects natural rivalries in both counties.

“The Egg Bowl is back and that is great. Casa Grande-Petaluma is a great rivalry,” Midgley said. “Napa-Vintage is also a huge rivalry game.”

Krist said: “Rivalries are a good thing. We play Casa at the end of the year, so that should be fun.”

Both Krist and Brunk questioned why San Marin of Novato wasn’t included in the VVAL, especially since geographically it is close to the Petaluma schools and near Highway 37. San Marin remained in the Marin County Athletic League.

As to who is favored in the VVAL this season, it’s anybody’s guess — there is no clear favorite.

“I don’t know enough about the teams yet to know who is the favorite. It is too hard for me to say right now,” said Brunk, whose Gauchos are winless. “We have had some struggles, but we are definitely better than 0-4. We are putting the preseason behind us and this is a new season and we are 0-0 in VVAL. Our goal is to win the first league pennant.”

Justin-Siena (3-1) and Petaluma (3-1) both had good nonleague results. Napa and American Canyon, which typically is a powerhouse, both went 0-4 in the preseason due to tough schedules. Sonoma Valley sits at 1-3.

“The preseason records are not depicting the abilities of the schools,” Krist said. “The league is up for grabs.”

Opening night in the VVAL represents an ending and a beginning at the same time.

“The SCL was around a long time,” Midgley said. “Now it’s gone forever and that is kind of sad.”

On the flip side, “Winning the first banner in the VVAL would be awesome,” Krist noted.

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