Benefield: No villains or winners in forfeited softball game

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A rule was broken. No one disputes it. The Rancho Cotate Cougars took a forfeit loss on April 1 despite beating the Windsor Jaguars 3-1 in the first softball game of the North Bay League-Oak Division season.

But how it was handled, well, that part falls more into the proverbial gray area.

The game pitted the 2-2 Cougars against the 2-1 Jags. Rancho always seems loaded and the Jags have a fine pitcher in St. Mary’s-bound Kayla Scott, so the game promised to be a good one.

With a string of rainy days that had canceled games and rearranged practice schedules, officials from both schools agreed to move the game from Windsor — where the field was deemed too soggy for play — to Rancho, where conditions were better.

When the Windsor team arrived at the field and began to warm up, coaches saw members of Rancho’s team in their batting cage, hitting regulation softballs. That’s verboten.

Under NBL bylaw 9.306 (it’s even in bold), it says: “… regulation balls may not be used for front toss. ONLY whiffle or other low flight balls may be used for front toss. PENALTY FOR VIOLATION: The game shall be forfeited by the offending team.”

The Jags’ coaches saw that Rancho was using regulation balls. A coach recorded the warmup with a phone. But Windsor head coach Morgan Rasmason didn’t say anything to any member of Rancho’s coaching staff.

The game was played. The Cougars won behind RBIs from sophomore Tatum Maytorena, junior Kenadi Akin and senior Makayla Barnes. Pitcher Kaylee Drake, a junior, got the win and Scott took the loss.

But it didn’t end there.

Rasmason registered a complaint with North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing. When Smith Billing reached out to Cougars coach Tracey Poueu-Guerrero, Poueu-Guerrero didn’t deny they’d done it; she said she had forgotten the new rule. For Smith Billing, it was open and shut. Rancho would be issued a loss via forfeit.

“It’s on me,” Poueu-Guerrero said.

The weather had been miserable, making the Cougars’ usual warmup area nearly unplayable. So she sent her team to the cage. She said they were not trying to pull a fast one. Nor were they were trying to cheat, she said. They simply went through their swing warmups with regulation balls.

“It was out in the open. It’s not like we were hiding behind a tree or a storage container,” she said.

While the rule has been on the books for North Coast Section postseason play for years, the regulation is new to the NBL this season, and the game in question was the first league contest for both teams.

At a preseason coaches meeting, all involved acknowledge Smith Billing spent a good deal of time talking about the new rule, going so far as to tell the tale of a team that was made to forfeit their section championship because they, too, had used regulation softballs in front-toss batting practice before a playoff game.

Rasmason remembered Smith Billing’s discussion.

“They were hitting front toss in their cage with real balls, which is in clear violation,” she said. “At the time, I tried to look up the (league) constitution on my phone but couldn’t find it. I kept it in the back of my mind.”

But she didn’t say anything to Poueu-Guerrero or anyone on Rancho’s coaching staff. After the game, she made some calls and then contacted Smith Billing.

It’s not a safety rule — it’s a competitive-advantage rule. The theory is that using a regulation softball is good pregame prep and the home team likely has a time advantage before a game, while the visiting team is traveling to the site. So the rule reads that no regulation balls can be used in front toss within two hours of game time.

Smith Billing had no wiggle room on the matter. The forfeit was spelled out in the rules. But that didn’t make it easy.

“Tracey would never do anything to gain a competitive advantage. She said, ‘Jan, I remember you talking about it now,’” Smith Billing said. “There was no intent to deceive or get an advantage. But I can’t say, ‘Oh I really like you, Tracey.’ I have to enforce the rule.”

Smith Billing said all parties felt badly about what went down.

“It was a bad situation, but that doesn’t mean I like it,” she said. “You made a mistake, it doesn’t make you a bad person.”

But Smith Billing gave credit to Rasmason for making the call.

“We have rules for a reason,” she said.

And at this level of sport, self-monitoring is key. Coaches have to, in many cases, officiate themselves.

“I have no hard feelings toward Tracey; I think she’s a great coach,” Rasmason said. “I don’t think they necessarily did it trying to break that rule.”

But that is where I hit pause. That is where I wish — in the spirit not of rules and regulations, but in the spirit of competition and being sporting — that Rasmason would have approached Poueu-Guerrero when she saw the Cougars hitting the regulation balls.

Unable to pull up the NBL constitution on her phone and not sure if she had the rules right? Have a conversation. Calling into question the behavior of a colleague on the spot might have been uncomfortable, but as it stands, Thursday’s rematch might be a little uncomfortable.

If Rasmason didn’t believe Poueu-Guerrero intended to gain an advantage, give a fellow coach the benefit of the doubt and say something at that moment.

If Poueu-Guerrero told Rasmason to take a hike and continued on with the illegal batting practice, then file a complaint.

That said, Rasmason was not in the wrong. She had every right to handle the situation the way she did.

“It’s in the constitution. It’s the only reason I brought it up. I have no hard feelings toward Tracey. It was definitely, not even remotely, an attack on her or anything,” Rasmason said.

With the rematch slated for 4 p.m. Thursday at Windsor, neither Rasmason nor Poueu-Guerrero wanted what happened on April 1 to “be the center of everything,” in Rasmason’s words.

They haven’t spoken about it. The Cougars are 6-3 overall and 4-1 in NBL play. The Jags are 5-3 and 3-2 in league.

“I’m not going to say I regret it because it’s the decision that I already made,” Rasmason said. “I think rules are in place for a reason.”

Poueu-Guerrero just wants this game decided on the field.

“We took the forfeit. It is what it is,” she said. “We are moving forward. It happened. The girls are moving forward; we are just putting that behind us as a lesson.

“I can’t explain why there wasn’t a different approach, all I can say is I would have handled it differently,” she said. “Even against my greatest rival, I would have handled it differently.”

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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