Benefield: Empire football teams adjust to postseason's new rules

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The clichés are as old as competition itself — “We’re just taking it one game at a time,” “We aren’t looking past any opponent” or “We are focusing on the opponent in front of us.”

It’s anathema for most coaches to give any hint of looking deeper into the schedule then the contest at hand.

But in this extraordinary high school football season of cancellations and postponements because of poor air quality from the deadly Camp fire in Butte County, nothing seems normal. After all, teams are still playing in the North Coast Section semifinals Friday and we are one day from Dec. 1.

And it is certainly not normal for the season to play out like it will in the coming days.

A recap: The delays to the postseason playoff schedule because of air quality concerns have pushed the NCS football tournaments into direct conflict with the first week of the NorCal playoffs. CIF is locked into its schedule, so NCS teams are forced to make a choice between playing out the bracket and taking a chance on NorCals. And no one likes it.

One option: Winners of semifinal games today will look at their schedules to see if one finalist beat the other earlier in the season. Winner of any head-to-head matchup moves on to NorCals.

If that doesn’t decide it, a coin is flipped. Winner goes to the NorCal tournament; loser goes home with nothing. In that scenario, no NCS winner will be declared and the section bracket will remain forever incomplete.

Another option: The two teams that advance to the final game agree to play for the NCS championship next weekend and forgo an opportunity to advance to the NorCal tournament. In this case, officials are mulling the possibility of creating non-CIF “bowl games” that could be played Dec. 14 or 15 to give teams one more postseason opportunity.

If the teams can’t agree, the coin flip will be used because that is the protocol the NCS executive committee voted to adopt on Nov. 14.

This week, area coaches —who have had to maneuver around canceled games and nixed practices, extended seasons and a whole lot of unknowns — have all had to tell section officials what their teams will do should they win Friday.

Looking past this week's games? It’s enough to give one hives. It’s just not done.

For Rancho Cotate coach Gehrig Hotaling, he made the conversation with his team as quick as possible. The whole thing has run counter to his push to keep his team laser-focused on just reaching the NCS title game. To ask his team to give an answer to the “what if” question, here on the eve of the most important game of the season, is a threat to that focus.

Still, the Cougars are dealing with it.

“They are handling it great,” Hotaling said. “I couldn’t ask them to handle it any better. They are focused on this game and rightfully so.”

Hotaling’s No. 1-seed Cougars face No. 5 Marin Catholic at 7 p.m. at home Friday in the Division 2 semifinals. If the Cougars win, the team has opted to play out the bracket and go for a section championship, Hotaling said.

It’s a different story in Division 3. The No. 1 seed, Cardinal Newman, will take its chances with a coin flip if the Cardinals make it past the No. 4-seed El Cerrito Gauchos at home Friday.

Coach Paul Cronin left the decision up to the seniors.

“We said, ‘Hey, this is your guys’ call. You deserve the right to make that decision,’” he said. “I wanted to keep my opinion out of it, it’s just not fair ... It’s not my senior year; it’s not my football team. It’s theirs.”

With a win Friday, the Cardinals will flip a coin with the winner of the No. 2 Eureka versus No. 3 Las Lomas contest.

The coin flip will be held at 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning at the section office in San Ramon. If the Cardinals lose the coin flip, their season will be over.

In Division 5, two local teams have talked out what they will do, but only one will have to make that call. No. 1 seed Kelseyville faces No. 5 Middletown Friday in Kelseyville.

Coaches Erick Larsen of Kelseyville and Bill Foltmer of Middletown said they will vote to play out the section whichever team advances.

Foltmer said that after this many months into a season which has always aimed toward the playoffs, the possibility of losing a coin flip and returning home with no next game, no NCS championship, not even a section runner-up banner, doesn’t sit right.

“Nobody likes the idea of coming away with nothing,” he said. “Why would I want that?”

The issue is more complicated for Kelseyville. The Knights are the No. 1 seed, the North Central League I champs and 10-1 on the season. But their one loss? It was a 40-32 road loss to Stellar Prep in the first game of the season. That means that if the Knights win and No. 3 Stellar beats No. 2 Salesian Prep at Salesian Friday, Stellar advances past Kelseyville per the head-to-head criteria OK’d by the section’s executive committee.

Larsen still can’t wrap his head around the process. Who can blame him? His team hasn’t lost a game since Aug. 17 and the section’s own seeding committee deemed the Knights the best team in the division.

“Especially if the goal is to put your best team forward, ideally you do that by playing the game and when that doesn’t happen, that is up to the seeding committee,” he said. “But that didn’t happen. They chose what they chose.”

The whole thing has been surreal and the moving parts almost impossible to follow. As the postponements mounted, section officials were faced with making a plan for how to deal with a situation in which the games could not be played out. Which team — if there is no champion — advances?

An executive committee teleconference was scheduled for Nov. 14 to map a way forward.

At that meeting, the executive committee moved to disregard NCS staff options and forge their own way. A decision was made to disregard seeds and instead look at head-to-head records. If that didn’t decide it, a flip of a coin would.

Three of the four Redwood Empire teams still in the mix were clear losers in this scenario. All three are No. 1 seeds, meaning all three would have benefited from the staff-recommended option of advancing the team with the highest seed.

“I would say there has been a considerable amount of pushback,” NCS Commissioner Gil Lemmon said. He oversaw the meeting in which the vote was taken, but doesn’t get a vote. In fact, Lemmon said, staff pushed the plan where the seedings held weight.

“We felt that the body of work for the team determines their seed and they have earned that position,” he said. “And that would be the best route to take in that situation, but our executive committee did not agree.

“If you are going to be commissioner, you have to embrace the governance process. You don’t get to make the decision, you facilitate having the decision made,” he said. “It’s not a matter of what I want. I support the action of the executive committee.”

Five members of the executive committee supported the plan that was an alternative to the staff’s suggestion: Erick Volta, superintendent of Liberty High Union High School District; Kristie Christiansen, athletic director at Eureka High; Louie Rocha, principal of Antioch High; Jerome Wiggins, under-represented representative; and Rachel Kahoalii, athletic director at Newark Memorial High.

John Nickerson, superintendent of Acalanes High School District, and Miramonte High School principal Julie Parks voted against the new proposal. Five other representatives, including two from Empire schools, were absent.

Both Division 2 semifinalist Campolindo and Division 3 semifinalist Las Lomas are in the Acalanes district. Eureka High is another Division 3 semifinalist.

Moving forward, Kelseyville’s Larsen hopes section officials put in place a protocol that is established well before competition is under way.

“First of all, I’m shocked NCS does not have anything already in place,” he said. “That they are waiting until this type of situation arises for people to vote on something like this. Now you have people voting on it that could benefit their school’s option.”

Lemmon pushed back on the idea that anyone voted for a plan that wasn’t putting the section as a whole first.

“I think we clearly have a group of people who rendered a decision based on what they thought was the fairest way to proceed forward,” he said.

That said, Lemmon expects the executive committee to address the establishment of a set plan at the upcoming governance meeting on Feb. 12.

“We are not going to be rushing to create something,” he said. “We may propose something for the future so all our schools can weigh in on which direction we should choose in the future.”

But for four area football teams, that future is now. Friday night, in fact.

And for now, all of the machinations and inner workings of section business can wait. We are back to the whole one-game-at-a-time thing. As it should be.

On the eve of the semifinal contests, Cardinal Newman’s Cronin sounded a note of equanimity about it all. Or was it resignation?

“I have come to grips with it,” Cronin said. “I think people were not trying to be malicious to us. People were trying to the do the best by the whole group. That’s all we can ask.”

After all, Cronin is barely more than a year removed from a season in which the Tubbs fire razed a significant portion of Newman’s campus and sent his players hither and yon for months.

“We understand the section was put in an impossible place,” he said. “It’s nobody’s fault this happened. It’s a tragedy this happened.”

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

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