Empire football teams change divisions

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Empire prep football teams face new playoff opposition with moves among divisions following the North Coast Section’s annual enrollment review.

Highlighting the moves are Rancho Cotate and Ukiah bumped down from Division 2 to Division 3 and St. Helena dropping from Division 4 to Division 5.

“I think it’s going to be tough in the playoffs no matter which division we’re in. There’s good teams either way,” said Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy.

Section officials make the moves each year as part of an effort to balance the number of schools in each of five divisions.

Schools can petition the section to move back into a higher division. The deadline for those requests is Sept. 19.

“We do not have to balance perfectly, but will make some adjustments to not make one division significantly larger or smaller than another, providing a somewhat equal opportunity to qualify to the NCS championships,” section commissioner Gil Lemmon said. “We also try to avoid a school going up one year, then going down another.”

The five divisions range in size from the largest schools — enrollment above 2,000 — to the smallest — enrollment under 500.

Among the Empire’s large schools, five remain in Division 2, with six now in Division 3. Four are in Division 4. The schools make up the North Bay and Sonoma County leagues.

Empire small schools are now largely in Division 5. The eight-team NCL I is split between Divisions 4 and 5.

“We tell the kids that they can control only what they personally can control, and our school size or what number the section decides to cut the divisions into is out of our control, so we want to model that thinking as a program,” St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell said.

Still, a divisional change can be significant.

Such moves are rare and often result in schools facing unfamiliar playoff opponents. That is because schools typically schedule nonleague opponents from the same division. And schedules were mostly completed before the section altered the makeup of divisions.

Teams qualify for the section playoffs based on having a winning or even record either overall, in league play or against opponents from the same division.

Rancho Cotate, a perennial contender in Division 2, now faces the prospect of a Division 3 playoff field featuring powers like El Cerrito, Marin Catholic and Campolindo, as well as Analy and league foe Cardinal Newman.

“We look at the teams in both divisions and the better teams are all very good,” Conroy said.

Rancho Cotate could petition to compete in Division 2 for the section playoffs. A primary reason would be that the Cougars know many of the other programs and largely what to expect in the postseason.

“We’re comfortable there because we’ve played a lot of those teams in the playoffs. Familiarity would be a reason to stay,” Conroy said. “Our decision will be based on where we fit in best. It is a tough call.”

Schools seeking to move up a division typically are approved, Lemmon said.

“It’s been pretty easy for schools to come up with a rationale. They typically are schools who do have the ability to compete at that level,” Lemmon said.

Teams bumped down a division do not necessarily gain an edge in the section playoffs after having competed against larger schools in the past.

In going from Division 4 to Division 5, St. Helena now could face traditional powers, including Salesian, Ferndale, St. Vincent and league rival Middletown.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything,” Farrell said. “Nobody even knows who’s going to make the playoffs at this time.”

St. Helena plans to remain in Division 5 for the section playoffs.

The biggest change for football in recent years was the section making Division 5 larger by raising the enrollment cap from 399 to 500.

That change, made two years ago to align with the CIF small-school football championship, has resulted in more Empire teams dropping down from Division 4.

One result of a larger Division 5 is an increase in the number of section football playoff spots this season. The field has doubled in size to 16, though fewer teams might qualify.

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or mike.coit@pressdemocrat.com.