Benefield: Lopsided soccer league not good for anyone

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Santa Rosa High School’s girls soccer team is having one of the most successful seasons they have had in more than a decade.

The Panthers are 6-0 and a lock to win the North Bay League-Redwood Division title and earn a berth in the North Coast Section Division 2 tournament. They have scored 45 goals in six league games and conceded zero.

Yet no one is happy.

So lopsided are the wins, so uneven is the competition, that Panthers backers are looking for a way out of what they say is a mess of ill-conceived competition that is putting everyone at a loss.

“It’s horrible. It’s horrible for the teams we play,” Santa Rosa coach Nikki Kumasaka said of her team’s string of lopsided wins. “It’s just a terrible situation.”

Since North Bay League-Redwood Division play started Jan. 8, the Panthers have beaten Elsie Allen 11-0 and 10-0, El Molino 3-0, Piner 6-0, Healdsburg 10-0 and Rancho Cotate, the second-place team, 5-0.

In some contests, starters are pulled almost immediately. Players are instructed to essentially play keepaway but not advance the ball. It’s a test of sportsmanship and patience, and it’s left Kumasaka in a quandary.

Athletes of all skill levels should love the game and learn something from competition. That isn’t happening here.

“I don’t really know what the right thing to do is at this point,” she said.

When Santa Rosa played Elsie Allen on Thursday, the Lobos could not field a complete team. After a flurry of phone calls and consultations about the legality of doing so, the Panthers lent the Lobos a player. The final score was 10-0.

Santa Rosa parents have expressed concern not only for what their kids are learning from 80 minutes of playing keep-away, but what that must feel like on the other side. The phrase “no win” was used more than once in several conversations.

How did this happen? Santa Rosa didn’t become an overnight power — the Panthers finished 5-9 in a robust North Bay League last season.

Let’s go back in time and unpack how the new North Bay League came to look as it does today.

Their hand somewhat forced after North Coast Section officials OK’d the addition of three Napa schools to the section — thereby altering the balance of area leagues — NBL schools approved a new structure that included many former Sonoma County League schools and created a so-called “super league.”

The idea was to include 12 schools, create two divisions and place teams in either the tougher Oak Division or the slightly less competitive Redwood Division. Teams’ placement would be reassessed every two years, so programs could be promoted or relegated.

Largely it has worked. NBL boys basketball has been filled with barnburners and upsets. So, too, has girls Oak Division soccer. And in the fall, the football season was more interesting than in years past.

But in Redwood Division girls soccer, it’s fallen flat. And Panthers backers are left wondering how they got here and what they need to do to leave.

To Kumasaka’s thinking, the Panthers had proven they were worthy of being in the Oak Division by holding their own against robust NBL opponents last season.

“It wasn’t like they were blowing us out,” she said. “The two teams we’d obviously have trouble with are Montgomery and Carrillo. Everybody else is in the same boat.”

Last season the Panthers lost to Montgomery 5-0 and 2-1, lost to Maria Carrillo 2-0 and 1-0, then split their games with Cardinal Newman, Ukiah and Windsor and beat Rancho Cotate 5-1 and 8-1.

But it was Santa Rosa that was moved to the Redwood Division, while Cardinal Newman, Ukiah and Windsor play in Oak. This season, the Panthers lost 5-2 to Cardinal Newman and beat Ukiah 2-0. They lost 1-0 to Analy — a team that won the SCL last season and was moved to Oak this season.

Recommendations for where teams should be placed were supposed to be based on conversations between coaches and athletic directors. The athletic directors then made recommendations to a committee of all 12 principals. When they agreed, an NCS committee voted to approve.

Few changes were ever made to the original proposals and Santa Rosa’s placement in Redwood did not spur any discussion, according to North Bay League commissioner Jan Smith Billing.

“They all sat down and talked about ‘What do you think about this proposal?’ ‘What do you think about that proposal?’” she said of the athletic directors. “What all 12 thought was the same about 95 percent of the time.”

“Principals review it using the same criteria,” she said.

The Santa Rosa girls soccer team’s placement in Redwood didn’t prompt anyone to pause at any point, Smith Billing said.

What did, however, was Sonoma Academy’s spot.

Two years ago, Sonoma Academy was beating everyone in the North Central II League en route to league and North Coast Section titles. Their dominating success pushed them to move to the Sonoma County League last season, where they finished a half-game out of first place behind Analy.

When it was clear the Sonoma County League would disband in the new configuration, Sonoma Academy girls soccer coach and athletic director Chris Ziemer asked NBL officials if his team could be included in their new league.

They said no.

Sonoma Academy appealed.

Ziemer said he didn’t request or push for placement in either Oak or Redwood — he simply wanted a place for his program to land and get games.

“We had told the North Bay League that we were very appreciative of them allowing (us) to join and we would play in whichever league the ADs and principals thought we should belong in,” he said.

“We didn’t feel like we could ask them to place us in a certain league,” he said. “We were just happy to have a place to play and games on our schedule. It was ‘Where do you want us? Tell us and we’ll be ready to play.’”

The recommendation from the athletic directors was that Sonoma Academy be placed in the Redwood Division. Principals disagreed.

“(Athletic directors) were always in favor of having Sonoma Academy be in the league,” Smith Billing said. “Principals were adamant that they belonged in Oak.”

According to Smith Billing, the rationale was this: Cardinal Newman played their way to a NorCal title last season as a Division 4 program after finishing 7-7 in the old NBL. Principals equated the two programs and decided Sonoma Academy was Oak material.

“The bottom line is it’s the principals’ decision,” she said. It was unanimous.

Sonoma Academy was 1-4-2 heading into a game with Analy on Tuesday, having tied Carrillo 1-1 twice. The Coyotes lost to Santa Rosa 3-0 in December. Behind Sonoma Academy, Ukiah was 0-7 heading into a game with Montgomery on Tuesday night. Santa Rosa beat Ukiah 2-0 on Jan. 4.

But Sonoma Academy shouldn’t be demonized for a decision that was out of their control.

At a principals’ meeting on Jan. 23, the commitment to keeping division placements for two years before adjusting for success or lack thereof was reinforced, Smith Billing said.

That means the Panthers will be in Redwood next season, too.

The rationale for two-year cycles was a bigger sample size of games — especially in these first few years of the new configuration.

For a Panthers squad that has just four seniors and expects to only get stronger next season, the one-year trial has been more than enough to see how it is working.

The nature of most high school teams is that success can be cyclical. A good crop of athletes can transform a program for a few years and the graduation of those same athletes can leave a program lacking for a season or two. It’s a piece of the equation that makes promotion and relegation difficult.

But the issue here is larger than Santa Rosa. I’d venture that any team that is pulled from Oak after two years will have much the same problems in the Redwood Division that the Panthers are having. The spectrum of skill, experience and talent in high school girls soccer is extraordinarily broad.

And, of course, with games as lopsided as the ones we are seeing, high school soccer runs the risk of losing players at both ends of the spectrum: The strong players who feel unchallenged may bolt and the weaker players who never get to feel that sliver of success that can keep an athlete coming back for more will hang it up.

Yes, coaches of strong teams need to use their surplus of nonleague games to schedule more challenging opponents. And, yes, they can empty their benches, rest players and do all of the tricks to make a game with an outmatched opponent more palatable. But asking players to hold back and play keep-away for 10 games straight?

There have been so many positives with the new configuration that this snag shouldn’t sink the ship. But it should cause some discussion and perhaps a trip back to the drawing board in those cases where the outcomes are so lopsided that everyone is suffering.

The Panthers may be 6-0, but they aren’t winning anything stuck where they are.

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

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