NCL I: Small league,
 but big action

The St. Helena High School football team take the field during practice at St. Helena High School, Thursday, Sept.  25, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

The St. Helena High School football team take the field during practice at St. Helena High School, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Something has to change in the biggest little league in the Redwood Empire, starting Friday night. The laws of mathematics demand it. There just isn’t any way all eight teams of the NCL I can finish with a winning record in league play.

The preseason has been another matter.

As the NCL I opens its league schedule, there isn’t a losing record to be seen. Clear Lake, Kelseyville and St. Helena each is 3-0, while Cloverdale, Fort Bragg, Middletown, Upper Lake and Willits are 2-1. That’s a combined record of 19-5. The eight teams have outscored opponents 774-329.

Yes, records can deceive. It all depends on who you have scheduled. But if the NCL I teams have played some smaller schools, they also have taken on some of the bigger ones. Collectively, these guys went 5-2 against the Sonoma County League in the preseason, which may say plenty about both leagues. St. Helena and Middletown both beat Healdsburg, Middletown and Fort Bragg beat El Molino, and Willits beat Elsie Allen, while Willits and Lower Lake both lost to El Mo.

While Friday’s league openers will probably recast the scene, it seems obvious that the lower tier of the NCL I — at least last year’s lower tier — has improved significantly.

Willits (0-10) didn’t win a game last year. That will not happen to the Wolverines in 2014. And Lower Lake may have climbed a rung, too. Last year the Trojans lost to Durham, 44-20, in the preseason; this year they beat Durham 27-18.

Last year the Trojans beat Upper Lake by 26 points; this year they beat the Cougars by 59.

“I like what the Lower Lake coaches are doing, bringing back the enthusiasm,” said Middletown coach Bill Foltmer, who spent much of the summer at the same passing league as the Trojans. “Lower Lake will be better this year.”

Clear Lake, Kelseyville and Cloverdale are hoping to turn a corner after finishing middle-of-the-pack last year.

“I do think we’re better,” said Mike McGuire, in his second year at the helm in Kelseyville. “Not as deep, but better in terms of our starting unit. The kids have had a year in the system. Last year I was hired in the summer, and we had a month and a half. There was not much time to put in the passing game. We’ve had a year now, and it’s shown. We’ve thrown a touchdown pass in every game so far.”

Knights quarterback Noah Lyndall is emerging as a nice complement to star running back Robert McLean, who has 621 rushing yards in three games thus far.

Darin Brodnansky, in his first season as varsity coach at Clear Lake, helped lead many of his current players to an undefeated season when he was their JV defensive coordinator. But he isn’t ready to anoint them this year.

“It is early,” he said. “It depends on what the kids want to accomplish. I would say we’ve been putting a lot of effort into preparing the kids, and we’ll see where we end up. … I’d like to think we’re prepared for what’s coming up.”

And Fort Bragg might be the hardest matchup in the NCL I. The Timberwolves are putting the ball in the air at a breathtaking rate this year, something that most small-school defenses don’t normally contend with. Fort Bragg quarterback Kaylor Sullivan has passed for 1,227 yards and 14 touchdowns — including eight in one half against Encina Prep, a new California state record — in three games.

Meanwhile, the teams at the top of the NCL I might feel a hint of vulnerability.

“If you look at it, just about every school in the league will be better this year, except maybe St. Helena and Middletown. I think both were a little better last year,” Foltmer said. “St. Helena might disagree with me, but that’s what I think. I certainly think that about our team.”

If the Mustangs (who went undefeated in the NCL I last year to claim the league title) and the Saints (who finished 6-1, losing only to Middletown) recede into the pack a little bit while some other teams improve, this could be one wild season of small-school football.

“Last year there were breathers,” McGuire said. “This year I honestly think any team could beat any team, given a break here or there, especially with officiating and turnovers.”

The deeper competitiveness of the league could result in a fourth NCL I champion being crowned in as many years. Since the league reconfigured with eight teams in 2011, St. Helena, Fort Bragg and Middletown have won titles. This season appears to be wide open.

Farrell saw Clear Lake and Cloverdale at a scrimmage in August, and came away impressed.

“What’s different is the quality of fundamental football,” St. Helena coach Brandon Farrell said. “What I’ve seen of Cloverdale and Clear Lake, Kelseyville, it’s really improved over years past in terms of fundamental football — what the coaches are teaching, the effort everyone is getting out of the kids. Not that it was bad before, just that this year it seems exceptional.”

The battle for supremacy in the NCL I begins tonight, as Fort Bragg travels to Lower Lake, Willits plays at Middletown, Cloverdale visits Clear Lake and Kelseyville hosts St. Helena. Buckle up. The back roads connecting these small schools are being traveled by some pretty good football players.

“A lot of years I try find one or two strong matchups each week, but I think every matchup this week is good,” Farrell said. “I can’t honestly say who I think will win in any of these games, and I think that will be the case every week.”

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