Football: In numbers crunch, NCL II disbands

St. Vincent's George Sammon (33) runs through the Calistoga defense, chased by Calistoga's Dylan Alvarado in 2013.  (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

St. Vincent’s George Sammon (33) runs through the Calistoga defense, chased by Calistoga’s Dylan Alvarado in 2013.
(ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Four years ago, seven Redwood Empire schools voted to play 8-man football, a move that disturbed some football traditionalists but ultimately created a more competitive environment on local gridirons. Now three more schools are joining them.

Calistoga, Tomales and Upper Lake will be joining Anderson Valley, Mendocino, Point Arena, Rincon Valley Christian, Potter Valley, Round Valley and Laytonville in 8-man football next fall, forming a 10-team North Central League III.

The exodus effectively brings an end to NCL II football, disintegrating a league that has existed for decades. The fourth school that played there in 2014, St. Vincent, recently petitioned to join the NCL I, but was told that the eight-team league had no interest in expanding. The Mustangs instead will rejoin the Bay Football League, to which they belonged in 2012 and 2013.

“I’m used to flexibility after 40 years in coaching, and 35 years at small schools,” St. Vincent coach Gary Galloway said. “The other alternative was to go independent, which is really a hassle, searching for games late in the season.”

It’s not an ideal spot for St. Vincent. Instead of traveling to league games in Marin, Napa and Lake counties, the Mustangs’ new Bay League opponents will be based in Emeryville (Emery), Oakland (Stellar Prep), Livermore (Livermore Valley Charter Prep) and Fremont (California School for the Deaf).

St. Vincent administrators had hoped Tomales, the school’s biggest football rival, would follow them to the Bay League, but that isn’t slated to happen.

Would the Mustangs consider converting to 8-man football?

“Not as long as I’m there,” Galloway said. “The numbers are not where they used to be, but I coach the other two sports, (boys’) basketball and baseball, and I’m teaching, I’m on campus. I get to know the kids well. It gets harder every year to get kids out for football, but I’m pretty convincing.”

The three schools switching to 8-man football did not make the decision lightly. Football is a powerful binding force in those communities, and to many fans that means 11-man football. But falling numbers forced their hands. Enrollment at Upper Lake in 2013-14 was 289 students. Calistoga had 256 and Tomales just 172.

Those figures made it hard to field varsity football teams and nearly impossible to run junior varsity programs.

Calistoga had to forfeit its final four JV games in 2014 when it ran into academic ineligibility problems, and Upper Lake had to pull up three JV players to field an 11-man varsity team. Tomales had no JV team at all this season, with only 14 kids in the entire football program.

A slight fluctuation in enrollment, or in talent, can doom a small-school program.

“I look at Calistoga like a basketball mid-major,” athletic director D.J. Hein said. “You’ve got your Butlers, you’ve got your VCUs, and once every 10 to 12 years they have that special team. We had that (in 2013) when we went 8-2 and were co-champions. It kind of made it look like Calistoga was back again, like we’d continue doing well.”

In reality, Hein said, 2013 was a sharp peak for the Wildcats. More often lately, they struggle to field a competitive team.

Another reason for the schools to embrace 8-man football: With just four entries in the NCL II, teams had to play one another twice in the regular season. It got repetitive. In a 10-team NCL III, they can fill out nearly an entire schedule with league games alone.

Faced with these realities, NCL II coaches and ADs discussed the switch at a meeting in mid-November and decided to investigate.

They took it seriously at Tomales, where athletic director John McGurke solicited opinions from students, families, community members and the Braves booster club.

“There really wasn’t a lot of pushback,” McGurke said. “There was maybe some concern — and it was just thrown out there — will students still want to come to Tomales if there’s no 11-man football? I don’t have an answer for that. But with the direction of how many teams have gone to 8-man throughout the state, it’s still viable to have a competitive league and competitive football. It’s just as much glory to win an 8-man championship as it is an 11-man championship.”

The newly configured NCL III hopes to have schedules finalized sometime in January.

Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section commissioner, said the NCS leaves it up to the individual schools to form leagues. “The (section) alignment committee would review it, but based on the agreement I’m sure we’d support it,” he said.

The big question is whether 8-man Empire teams will ever get to enjoy playoff football. The web site calpreps.com lists an even 100 8-man teams in California, divided among 18 leagues. Most of them have playoff systems. The North Coast Section has no such tournament for 8-man squads.

That could change soon. Lemmon said that at its most recent meeting, the NCS Board of Managers passed a proposal that would allow the creation of playoff brackets in sports that currently have none. It will go before the section commissioners in January.

“I know the NCS has expressed interest, and I have, to have something, even if it’s a little four-team tournament,” Lemmon said. “Then you could have a two-week playoff. But certainly there is talk going on. I don’t think we’ll have anything in place for next year, but maybe by 2016.”

Despite all the positives, plunging into 8-man football was a difficult call for local coaches and ADs. One factor that made it a bit easier: Nothing will be etched in stone.

“It comes in waves here in Tomales, as far as population,” McGurke said. “Hopefully we can go back to 11-man in a few years.”

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