Benefield: NCS needs to design better backup plan for playoffs

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SAN RAMON — After two years of natural disasters that wreaked havoc on sporting events and schedules, North Coast Section officials on Monday moved to put rules on the books that would make the path forward clear should the unexpected happen. Again.

The move comes after the section’s executive committee, facing the possibility of not enough time to complete the postseason tournament brackets, drew howls of protest for adopting a protocol that advanced a team to the NorCal regional football game by way of a coin flip.

At the section executive committee Monday, members defended the policy while directing commissioner Gil Lemmon to come up with a number of proposals to present to the committee in February that would avoid such a situation in the future.

Eric Volta, the committee president who is superintendent of the Liberty Union High School District, said that when the vote to prioritize head-to-head then move to a coin flip was taken at a Nov. 14 special meeting, the circumstances were extremely trying.

“Coming from our school sites, we were dealing with a lot more pressing matters than playoffs when we were trying to make this decision,” he said. “It wasn’t just about football; it was about all our teams, a number of different safety issues that we were having during this time.”

Eighty-five people died in the Camp fire and just about the entire town of Paradise was lost. The lingering air quality issues affected millions of North Bay communities for weeks.

No one is arguing that sports are paramount. But sound, thoughtful — and yes, sympathetic — minds can still argue that a better plan can and should be put in place to avoid a testy coin flip conversation should something like this happen again.

“A coin toss isn’t equitable. It’s equal,” Julie Parks, committee member and Miramonte High School principal, said Monday. Parks, along with Acalanes High School District Superintendent John Nickerson, voted against the coin flip.

“A coin toss isn’t athletics,” Parks said. “We should have faith in our seeding process. I think it’s easier to explain to the kids, to the parents, when we are basing it on something tangible that makes sense.”

To their credit, NCS officials are tackling this.

Lemmon was given a number of avenues to investigate, including requiring that teams be forced to travel to a new site if the one on the schedule is unplayable. A team that refuses could face a forfeit. And the bottom line from committee members was this: Completing the section tournament should be the No. 1 priority. Planning for teams to make NorCals or the state tournament would be secondary.

“The priority is to finish the section championship,” Volta said.

The priority is also to take out the uncertainty, and in some cases, suspicion, when decisions about brackets and advancement are made in the throes of emergencies — and, in some cases, by officials from schools that are still in the competitive hunt.

“We have had two years of this. The time has come to have a proactive policy,” said Rianne Pfaltzgraff, principal at Concord High School and an executive committee member.

Fall postseason tournaments were affected by wildfires this year. Last year, wildfires and subsequent air quality concerns canceled league games and affected the rules by which section officials allow teams to enter the tournament.

Whether these kinds of disasters and schedule interruptions become normal isn’t the issue. Being better prepared for disruptions is. To wait invites not only criticism, but a flood of “What about this?” plans.

Take away the uncertainty — make the plan clear.

There are still murmurings out there that Cardinal Newman got what it deserved when it lost the coin flip because the team refused to give up its home-field advantage and travel. Untrue. It was other teams up and down the brackets that refused to move games that made it unrealistic to change locations.

“There were teams willing to go but it wasn’t a complete bracket, so it didn’t help us,” said Bri Niemi, associate commissioner.

And the section had no authority to make them travel or face an automatic loss. That may change in the new policy.

Also being floated is the idea of eliminating earlier rounds of playoffs based on seeds, rather than wait until brackets reach the championship. But, it was pointed out, that would have cut Middletown from the tournament early.

The Mustangs, the No. 5 seed in Division 5, pulled off two upsets in a row to win the section title for the first time since 2001. In Division 4, sixth seed Fortuna upset No. 1 seed Moreau Catholic to win the section title.

With that in mind, advancing solely by seed doesn’t look like such a perfect idea, either.

And no plan will be perfect or quell all doubts. These ideas are all just notions at this point. Developing criteria now — in moments of thoughtfulness and calm and, let’s be real, immediately after some schools are feeling burned by the way the section handled this latest emergency — is key.

No amount of preparation will ever be enough when the next disaster hits, but to disregard lessons learned from this last go-round would be the real mistake.

And to quote executive committee member Kristie Christiansen, athletic director at Eureka High, “the sooner the better.”

Hear, hear.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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