NBL boys soccer votes to shift seasons

Rancho Cotate High School boys soccer coach Eamon Kelly led his team to its first-ever NBL league championship this season. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Rancho Cotate High School boys soccer coach Eamon Kelly led his team to its first-ever NBL league championship this season. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After years of debate, it’s now official: North Bay League boys soccer will be played in the winter.

In an unanimous vote Tuesday by principals from the eight NBL schools, the upcoming boys soccer season will begin in November and run through February. The girls teams will continue to play in the fall.

The NBL’s move follows a similar vote by officials from the Marin County Athletic League, which opted to move both their boys and girls soccer seasons to the winter.

“That was basically the impetus behind it for the boys; they felt like they would get more competition,” said NBL commissioner Marie Sugiyama. “The girls also voted unanimously to stay in the fall.”

Concerns that moving the same sport to different seasons for boys and girls would run afoul of gender equity requirements were quelled by officials who made inquiries to legal experts, Sugiyama said. Boys and girls golf and tennis have been played in different seasons for years.

“As long as there is justification as to why they want to move, as to why they want separate seasons, it would be OK,” Sugiyama said.

The move by the MCAL turned the heat up on a long-simmering debate about when local soccer should be played.

Since 1996, an NBL team has won the boys North Coast Section soccer championship 11 times; an MCAL team has won it seven times. Terra Linda High defeated Montgomery for the championship this fall.

Already in a larger postseason pool of competition than the girls, moving to winter will expand the NBL boys’ postseason array of potential opponents considerably.

“It puts us on par with the big boys, the teams in the east bay and south bay and the schools in southern California,” said Montgomery High coach Jon Schwan. “What we get now is increased competition in the preseason and the same NCS that the basketball team gets. It’s a true championship.”

“My first call is going to be to De La Salle,” he said of the Concord powerhouse.

But even with more schools playing in the winter, there is still no state soccer championship — one reason opponents have used against moving seasons.

And even boosters like Schwan agreed there will be a period of acclimation as the new schedule unfolds.

“There is going to be a huge adjustment period, logistically, in how we get this all done for some schools,” he said.

Talk of moving to the winter, when the majority of southern California and large swath of Bay Area teams play, has been thwarted in the past by concerns about the state of natural grass fields, limited daylight and poor playing conditions.

Four NBL schools currently play on artificial fields: Montgomery, Santa Rosa, Rancho Cotate and Windsor. Four schools play on natural grass: Maria Carrillo, Cardinal Newman, Casa Grande and Ukiah.

Shortage of daylight in winter has also been a concern. Montgomery, Santa Rosa and Maria Carrillo have legal limitations on the frequency with which they can use their athletic field lights.

It remained unclear this week how much of the logistics will be sorted out, including at what time and on what days games will be played. Also unclear is how the move will affect the Sonoma County League.

And the wear and tear on natural grass remains an issue at some campuses.

“Maria Carrillo is going to see, depending on the weather, if they could use one of the other Santa Rosa City Schools fields if they have bad weather,” Sugiyama said. “Ukiah also doesn’t have turf fields and they said they would be fine with it as long as the people coming up there realize it would be muddy and they would have to play in those conditions.”

There is also a delicate relationship between elite club programs and high school teams which compete for players’ time.

A move to the winter means boys who play club soccer will not be able to play with those squads during the new high school season because it is considered the official CIF season for soccer. When the high school season ends, club participation can resume. That rule will not affect girls playing club soccer because fall is not considered the official season of the sport.

But Schwan, who coaches with Santa Rosa United as well as at Montgomery, said the move is not expected to put high school and club coaches at odds.

“At Santa Rosa United, we are adjusting on the fly as we go,” he said. “They are planning on allowing kids to play high school soccer.”

The increased competition is the biggest selling point for Schwan.

“I’m excited about it, I really am,” he said. “It was fine the way it was and it wasn’t like we were trying to fix something that wasn’t broken, but once MCAL moved, it was done.”

You can reach Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield