Elsie Allen football goes independent

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Larry Mahre noticed a strange phenomenon over the past eight years or so at Elsie Allen High School. First as an assistant junior-varsity football coach, then as JV head coach, Mahre saw generally happy and enthusiastic young athletes suiting up for the Lobos.

But when sophomores became juniors, their demeanors often changed. Many dropped out of football altogether. Some talented sophs, given the chance to play varsity, asked if they could remain on the JV team instead.

“The kids would walk around on Thursday and Friday with their jerseys on, and they’d get a little garbage from the other students,” Mahre said. “People would ask them, ‘Why are you bothering with that?’”

That’s what happens when you lose 40 consecutive league games, as the Lobos did over the past six years. No matter how you slice it, Elsie Allen had become the doormat of the North Bay League in football.

So when Mahre succeeded Larry Arterberry as varsity coach this season, he acted on a plan that had been forming at the school for several years. The Elsie football team has broken away from the NBL and will play as an independent in 2011. The other Lobos teams will remain in the league this year.

“There are some kids on varsity, seniors, who have never won a game,” Mahre said.

But really, it wasn’t the low winning percentage that had the Lobos down. It was the margin of defeat. Last year’s results included losses of 57-0 to El Molino (in a preseason game), 62-0 to Santa Rosa, 48-0 to Rancho Cotate and 56-0 to Montgomery. When the contests are that lopsided, they don’t build character or teach life lessons. They are simply demoralizing.

Arterberry had supported the plan to go independent before he retired this year, and so did Mahre’s co-athletic director, Alan Petty. But it wasn’t up to them. They had to get formal approval from Elsie Allen principal Mary Gail Stablein, from the athletic directors of the NBL, from the various principals of league schools, and from the North Coast Section.

As it turned out, they didn’t meet a lot of resistance. Elsie Allen will play its first season as an independent after 16 years in the NBL.

But that didn’t end the work for Mahre. Part of the attraction of playing in a league is having 70 percent of your schedule set by a league committee. Without one, Mahre had to build his entire season from scratch.

He found a great resource on the coaches’ section of the NCS web site, which lists teams with available dates. He looked for schools of similar size and athletic ability, and began making phone calls. And wouldn’t you know it, word got out and other coaches started calling him too.

The Lobos currently have eight games on the schedule, pending confirmation from Fort Bragg. Elsie Allen will host Sonoma Valley, Emery, Piner and El Molino, and will travel to American Canyon, Hercules and Durham. Mahre is currently working on a ninth game.

“It was time-consuming, but not tremendously difficult,” he said.

Certainly, the travel expenses will grow. The Lobos had five road games last year, to El Molino, Rancho Cotate, Piner, Ukiah and Montgomery. Average one-way trip: 19.6 miles, mostly because of that run to Ukiah.

Average one-way distance for this year’s three confirmed trips: 88.7 miles.

But as Petty said: “What’s better, traveling four miles to Rancho and losing by 70, or driving a couple hours to Vacaville for a competitive game? If the goal is a competitive environment, this is the way to do it. We’re not doing things the easy way.”

Petty and Mahre both stress that they aren’t simply trying to pad Elsie’s record. A few more wins would be nice, sure, but the main objective is closer, more exciting games.

A 44-32 loss, like the one the Lobos suffered to Vacaville Christian last year, is a football game. A 62-0 loss is a travesty.
And if the Lobos really get on a roll, they will still be eligible for an at-large NCS playoff berth.

It isn’t clear where Elsie Allen’s foray into independence will take the program. The school is scheduled to shift from the NBL to the Sonoma County League in 2012-13, and it has been assumed that football will part of the move.

Mahre, however, wants to revisit the issue after the season. He thinks the Lobos might be better off staying unaffiliated in the long run.

In either case, being detached from powers like Cardinal Newman, Rancho and Casa Grande (which will go from SCL to NBL) can only help morale at Elsie Allen. Petty and others have long complained that many of the best athletes from the local neighborhood wind up transferring to other high schools, partly for a chance to win on the field.

“The big issue is keeping kids from trashing our school,” Petty said. “If we can keep kids in our district, we’ll be fine.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.