Benefield: With changed minds and cooler heads, Healdsburg soccer game goes on as planned

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HEALDSBURG — In the end, it was just about soccer. But in the 24 hours leading up to Healdsburg High School’s 2-0 win over visiting Rancho Cotate in North Bay League-Oak Division boys soccer, the talk was about everything but soccer.

It was about parents getting out of control, it was about student safety, it was about tempers flying despite the fact that we are talking about 16-year-olds playing high school soccer.

Let’s go back: On Tuesday, Healdsburg hosted Elsie Allen in a game that ended in more than a 2-2 tie. It ended with players jawing with each other, which led to benches clearing, which led to stands emptying as adults faced off in the middle of the field.

Healdsburg principal Bill Halliday wasn’t at the field Tuesday night, but he reviewed the tape. In response, he made a decision to close Thursday’s game with Rancho — senior night for the ’Hounds — to any fans.

That didn’t sit well.

Parents were upset. Players refused to play. The game — crucial to two playoff-caliber teams vying for second place in the NBL-Oak — was in jeopardy of not being played.

So Halliday reconsidered.

“What turned me was (Wednesday) night, driving home, and realizing that we are probably not going to have a game that is very important to both schools,” he said.

“What can I do to get this done and ensure student safety?” he said.

He met with players. He met with parents — again.

“What I got was clear assurances” from parents who vowed to monitor the stands, he said.

But Halliday also brought in backup.

Two uniformed security guards roamed the sideline Thursday night. A surfeit of Healdsburg school staff were at the field. And a fourth referee was planted firmly behind the ’Hounds’ bench and in front of their packed stands. Halliday even called Healdsburg Police to let them know the backstory of what was going down Thursday — just in case.

But in the end, happily, it was just 80 minutes of soccer. The only drama was on the field.

Still, it was a long haul for many of the ’Hounds, who went through an emotional wringer leading up to their senior night.

“A lot of emotions were happening. I was very emotional throughout the past 24 hours. But it took a lot of determination in terms of talking to the people that I needed to talk to, the representatives, and making sure that we could have this game possible no matter what the circumstances were. If that required a lot of security, that’s what it needed,” Healdsburg’s senior goalkeeper Orion Von Rohr said.

“Last night, I didn’t think this was going to happen,” he said.

For senior Eric Guzman, it was clear there had been issues with people in the stands. Having family members file onto the field to get in the face of fans from the other team is not normal. But it wasn’t everyone in the stands who was up to no good, and that’s where he had trouble with the plan to bar all spectators.

“I felt like it wasn’t fair to exclude everyone out when it was mainly one or two people,” he said.

I asked if everyone knows who the troublemakers are.

“Clearly,” he said.

They must recognize who they are, too, because the packed stands and people draped over the fence along the sideline Thursday night were loud but well behaved. Perhaps Halliday’s come-to-Jesus talk worked.

If one didn’t know the backstory, it might not have been obvious how much had gone into simply staging this game.

Seniors walked onto the field before kickoff with family members on their arms and bouquets of flowers and balloons in their hands.

And after the ceremony, after 24 hours of machinations and security reinforcements and promises of goodwill, the game was played. It was suddenly not about ne’er-do-wells in the stands but about soccer.

And let us not forget — this was a crucial game for both teams. They were locked in a tie for second, with both teams coming in at 2-2-3. They had tied 4-4 the last time they played in a torrential downpour on Jan. 16. And yes, that game got heated at times.

On Thursday, the teams were tied 0-0 at the half. When the final 40 minutes were under way, Rancho came out of the intermission clearly the more aggressive team. It looked like they would strike at any moment.

’Hounds coach Herbert Lemus knew it was coming.

“They don’t know how to quit,” he said of the Cougars. “We were ready for them in the second half, but it took us a little while to maintain it.”

Despite the Cougars outplaying the home team for the opening minutes of the second half, it was the ’Hounds who got on the board first.

Senior David Botello took the ball down the right sideline and crossed it into the box and onto the foot of Guzman, who managed to put something on to slip it past the Rancho goalkeeper. With 26 minutes to play, the home team was up 1-0.

Two minutes later, the ’Hounds struck again. This time is was Botello on his own. The senior challenged the Cougars’ last defender for the ball around midfield and won. His one-on-one with the goalie was all ’Hounds. It was 2-0 with 24 minutes to play and the ’Hounds never looked back.

The win puts Healdsburg in sole possession of second place with just two league games left to play. The ’Hounds play at Santa Rosa Tuesday and end their NBL-Oak season on Friday at Windsor. Healdsburg is ranked eighth among North Coast Section Division 4 teams.

Rancho, which falls to 5-6-4 overall and 2-3-3 in league, was ranked 16th among Division 2 schools and needed a win Thursday to bolster their playoff hopes.

For Lemus, Thursday night could have looked so different. His team’s season hung in the balance and was what felt like a moment away from being lost if a compromise couldn’t be worked out.

“I have to thank our administration (for making) it work,” Lemus said. “And we have to give credit to Rancho as well because they had to agree to it.”

Lemus credited Rancho coach Nick Rodgers for being willing to play the game under unusual circumstances and clearly talking to his Cougars about quashing any emotional flare-ups.

Five yellow cards were issued in the game, but the play wasn’t dirty — just hard.

“It was clean, hard-played soccer — no animosity between the two teams,” Lemus said.

And it was so close to happening behind proverbial closed doors. And then so close to not happening at all. And that would have been a total waste. These two teams are too good to miss.

As parents guided their seniors out onto the field Thursday night, it was hard not to think about how all parents and families are also expected to guide their players in life.

Balloons and bouquets are great, but sometimes young people can use something more. They are watching. We all 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.

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