Elsie Allen won’t field varsity football team this season

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One year after having to forfeit two games because of inadequate roster numbers and a squad depleted by injury, Elsie Allen High School will not field a varsity football team this fall.

It marks the second time in two seasons that a North Bay League-Redwood Division varsity football program has folded before the completion of the season. Last fall, Healdsburg High shuttered its varsity season after an 0-2 start and dwindling numbers prompted players to vote to disband the team.

Elsie Allen Principal Gabriel Albavera, just starting his second year at the helm, said school officials will focus on developing the Lobos’ junior varsity team this season — a move he hopes will translate into success at the varsity level in the future.

“For the safety of our students, we felt that it was best to just do a JV team,” he said.

That said, a coach has not yet been hired to lead the JV team. Dallas Packard, who stepped in to coach the varsity team on the eve of the season last year, resigned his post at the end of the school year. The Lobos had been scheduled to open their season Aug. 23 with a home game against Harker High School from San Jose. League play was scheduled to start Oct. 11 with a road game in Healdsburg.

The vacant coaching position has been posted since June, but the job drew the first of “three or four” resumes just last week, Albavera said.

“We are trying to get them in, if not this week, then the beginning of next week,” he said of coaching candidates.

Albavera was quick to praise Packard, who was set to stay aboard and lead the team through this transitional JV season. Albavera said his departure was not football-related.

“He was wanting to stay with us,” he said. “He was gung-ho in spring practice, here with kids. This is not having anything to do with frustration or lack of success.

“He decided to leave for a family situation,” Albavera said. “We are going to miss him. We really appreciated the work he had done.”

Still, Packard’s departure has to ring familiar — and troubling — for Lobos boosters. He was the eighth head varsity football coach at Elsie Allen since November 2014.

“Coaches coming and going leads to less morale with our students, especially students who are committed to playing football,” Albavera said.

The Lobos went 0-9 last season, including two forfeits, one of which was the final game of the year. They scored 48 points while allowing 426. When the Lobos beat St. Vincent two years ago on Aug. 25, 2017, it was the first win for the football program since September 2013. The school has long struggled to draw enough numbers to field a junior varsity program.

The disruption of yet another coaching change was exacerbated by turnover in both campus athletic director positions and a dearth of applicants to fill the coaching post. One athletic director has been hired, but officials are still trying to fill the second AD position.

North Bay League Commissioner Jan Smith Billing is scheduled to meet with Albavera on Wednesday, in part to help map a way forward. It was unclear Tuesday how the loss of a Lobos squad would affect other NBL-Redwood teams and their schedules.

“I found out very late,” Smith Billing said. “Ten percent of your season is lost if you can’t find a team to play.”

Albavera acknowledged the issue with alerting league officials, saying the turnover at the athletic director post was the main culprit.

“That was a little bit of a miscommunication on our end,” he said.

But Albavera said he was confident the school would find a coach for a JV team to compete this season.
“We are going to make it happen,” Albavera said. “We have kids that are willing to play JV. I feel confident we will definitely get a coach with us.”

Albavera expressed a commitment to build consistency in the Lobos’ athletic program.

Smith Billing expressed confidence that Albavera has the tools to tackle an issue that has lingered for years.
“I think his dynamic personality is going to change things around there,” she said.

While the football program has struggled for years and the baseball season was called off last spring for lack of numbers, Elsie has long boasted a dominant boys soccer team and just last winter shared a piece of the first-ever North Bay League-Redwood Division wrestling title. The Lobos boys basketball team won a league title in 2014-15 and the boys track squads won league in 1998 and 1999.

“Being a former athlete myself in high school, it’s important to have these programs for our students,” Albavera said. “It’s important to get them connected to after-school activities, to feel safe, to feel connected — to feel that they are cared for here with us.”

In recent years, Elsie Allen has not been able to field a tennis team or a golf or swimming squad, according to Smith Billing.

Elsie Allen is not the smallest school in the division, but it does have the highest level of students living in the federal definition of poverty.

Elsie Allen had 1,042 students in 2018-19, according to the California Department of Education.

Approximately 66% of students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch. By comparison, Healdsburg had 522 students last year, about 44% of whom qualified for the lunch program; El Molino had 569, approximately 36% of whom qualified for the lunch program; Piner had 1,388, about 59% who qualified for the lunch program; NBL-Redwood Division champs Montgomery had 1,632 with 37% qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch; and Santa Rosa had the largest enrollment at 1,948, of which 4 in 10 students qualified for the lunch program.

Demographics play a role in how families choose schools and who, in the end, has access to programs, Albavera said.

“We can get into the politics of things and discuss the number of students (who) opt out of Elsie Allen residence to other schools,” he said. “But … the majority of our students have never played football before. Their first encounter with football is basically freshman year here.”

Football can be a unique struggle both because of a lack of feeder programs and growing concern for athlete safety in the sport.

Ideally, Albavera said he’d like to find a coach who is also an on-campus teacher.

He pointed to the rise of the Lobos’ wrestling program under teachers Ricky Alcala and Alex Duerr.

“Being on campus definitely helps when you are building a program and establishing program continuity,” Albavera said.

And that is the ultimate goal, Albavera said.

“It’s the work we do to change the way things have been. … I feel very confident that our JV program is going to be very successful,” he said. “And knock on wood, the varsity program (will return) the following year.”

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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