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Benefield: North Bay League will have to decide this year whether to tinker with divisions

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To tinker or not to tinker, that is the question.

After months of talks and negotiations determined which schools competed against each other and in which sports in the new-look North Bay League last year, all of those puzzle pieces are up for renegotiation and a new round of debate heading into 2019-20.

“It was huge,” NBL Commissioner Jan Smith Billing said of the creation of the 12-school so-called super league prior to the 2018-19 school year. “I think we did a good job.”

But from the beginning, this was a structure that was meant to be played with.

So now they get to do it again. Well, not all over again. But every placement in every sport will get a look as each season concludes this year.

In the fall, that means meeting with coaches, athletic directors and principals about the divisional placement of teams playing football, cross country, volleyball, girls golf and girls tennis.

Will teams that finished at the top of the Redwood Division automatically get bumped up to the stronger Oak Division? What if two teams merit a promotion? And what does that mean for teams that were at the bottom of the Oak Division?

This will be a year of scores of conversations about who belongs where and why. And the why part is crucial, Smith Billing said.

“I want it justified, not ‘I want this. Period,’” she said.

A quick refresher for what has changed in the last year. It’s a lot.

In 2017, the North Coast Section accepted three new schools (Napa, Vintage and American Canyon), additions that threatened to throw out of balance the competition schedules of NCS leagues, including the Sonoma County League and North Bay League.

After months of discussion, it was decided to disband the SCL and that Petaluma, Casa Grande and Sonoma Valley would move to form the new Vine Valley Athletic League and compete with American Canyon, Justin-Siena, Napa and Vintage. Other area schools — Analy, Cardinal Newman, El Molino, Elsie Allen, Healdsburg, Maria Carrillo, Montgomery, Piner, Rancho Cotate, Santa Rosa, Ukiah and Windsor — would combine to join an enlarged, 12-team NBL that would be broken into two divisions. The stronger teams in each sport were put in the Oak Division, the weaker teams in the Redwood Division. Champions in each division would earn a trip to the NCS playoffs as well as be given a pennant.

Every two years, those assignments would be reassessed. We are now on the eve of those discussions.

What teams do over the next few months will help determine where they are placed and who they will face next season. And it will all involve debate. Starting with the coaches.

The plan is this: Smith Billing will meet, as she always has, with all coaches at the close of the season. But this time around, a main topic of discussion, debate and conference will be the issue of relegation and promotion.

Should Santa Rosa and Rancho Cotate girls soccer move up? Should Cardinal Newman girls softball be elevated? And if those squads move up, who moves down?

Smith Billing will craft a form for all coaches to fill out. She’ll want to know about their team but also their opinion on other teams.

“‘Would you like to stay or go up or down and why?’ ... I do anticipate changes in just about every sport,” she said.

And some of those changes may involve moving to setups that have, say, seven schools in one division and five in another, depending on the sport and the disparity in strength between programs.

But that move changes not only which teams schools play, but how many times and when the league season starts. For football, where teams only play each other once, a change in the number of schools per division would alter a team’s schedule dramatically.

“If it’s going to be seven and five, that changes everything, especially in football,” she said.

Even after debate, some divisions may not make any moves at all. Redwood Division boys basketball was a blast that featured near-weekly upsets. Oak Division boys soccer was — apart from the dominance of Montgomery — a thrill ride, with four teams posting nearly identical records.

But there were a few divisions in which competition was painfully lopsided.

Take, for instance, Redwood Division softball. Cardinal Newman went 10-0 in league, but that doesn’t tell the story. This does: The Cardinals scored 193 runs and allowed 7. They beat the two teams that tied for second place 20-2, 23-1, 16-0 and 14-1.

Another division likely to spark serious debate is Redwood girls soccer.

Santa Rosa went 9-1, losing only to Rancho Cotate, 2-1. The Panthers scored 76 goals in 10 games and allowed two. The Cougars were similarly dominant, going 8-1-1 with 48 goals for and 9 against.

But there are currently seven teams in the Oak Division. Ukiah finished 1-11 last season, but that came just one year removed from a 7-7 league season that earned them a spot in the NCS Division 2 tournament.

Sonoma Academy, a relatively late addition after just one year in the SCL, went 2-8-2 after a yearslong run of utter dominance over North Central League II opponents.

It was logic and reasoning that put teams where they were placed, but the ebb and flow of high school sports and what coaches have to work with in a given year is a fickle science. Sometimes a team’s success, or lack of it, defies logic and reason.

Which is part of the fun.

It’s difficult to have a crystal ball about which teams will thrive year to year, so Smith Billing said she relies on those on the ground — especially coaches and athletic directors — to offer insight.

“Definitely,” Smith Billing said. “Their input is really important. They know who is graduating, who is currently a freshman … they also know about eligibility.”

A framework is created and then taken to athletic directors. They too, must come to an agreement. From there, it’s up to the principals to vote the divisions up or down. That final plan is then taken to NCS officials for final approval.

And there it will stay for the next two years.

Easy? Not really. But keeping lines of communication open helps, Smith Billing said.

“I worked really hard to listen to everybody and let people know why we couldn’t make changes midstream. It’s a North Coast Section rule that these things are for two years,” she said. “People understood and accepted that.”

But this process touches on pride, touches on pennants — a lot is at stake. Smith Billing understands that. She understands passions.

“There will be arguments,” she said. “Nothing we do is unanimous.”

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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