SCL principals vote to keep boys soccer a fall sport

Head coach Carlos Mosqueda, left, watches his Elsie Allen players run drills during a practice last fall.  (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Head coach Carlos Mosqueda, left, watches his Elsie Allen players run drills during a practice last fall. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. That’s how the administrators of the Sonoma County League felt as they weighed moving boys’ soccer to the winter.

Remain in the fall and their teams would face watered-down competition, and perhaps an accelerated migration to club soccer. Shift to winter and the schools would have to deal with a litany of complications, including scarcity of fields and game officials, bad weather and a seasonal split between boys’ and girls’ soccer. Schools with smaller enrollments would be forced to abandon their traditional preseason opponents.

“Small schools lose either way,” El Molino principal Matt Dunkel said, perhaps speaking for the majority.

Choosing the lesser of evils at a meeting at Piner High on Thursday morning, the administrators voted 4-2 to keep boys’ soccer as a fall sport. Representatives from El Molino, Healdsburg, Piner and Sonoma Valley high schools elected to maintain the current schedule. Analy and Petaluma voted to play in the winter, and Elsie Allen High did not send a representative.

Petaluma principal David Stirrat hinted that his school would consider breaking from the SCL and attempting to join another league.

“We’re gonna have to look at options and work with coaches about what we should do next,” Stirrat said.

This decision has been brewing for some time. The Marin County Athletic League voted to move boys’ soccer to winter in April of 2013; that move will take effect in the 2015-16 school year. The North Bay League, fearing the loss of some of its top local competition, voted a week ago to follow suit.

That led to speculation that the SCL would join the rush, but the calculus was different for schools in that league, which tend to have lower enrollment and more antiquated facilities.

The most common reservation among SCL teams had to do with conditions of the playing fields. Of the seven schools that make up the league, only Elsie Allen and Piner currently have artificial turf fields. The others practice and play games on grass.

Even playing in the fall, Sonoma County Soccer Referee Association official Steve Larsen said during the public comment period Thursday, “By the end of the season, the conditions are horrible.”

With 22 players running all over the place, soccer batters a grass field. Most school districts and municipalities use the winter months to reseed and let the fields replenish.

“Wintertime’s when my fields rest,” said Tony Albini, manager of operations for Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

“… Without the fields, you’re not playing soccer. We’ve really got to think about this. Sonoma can’t go to a winter sport.”
“I got three guys from the entire district for all of our fields,” Albini added.

In Healdsburg, the Greyhounds boys’ and girls’ soccer teams both play at Recreation Park, which is maintained by the city. At a recent meeting for field users, Healdsburg High athletic director Rob Lee asked if the boys’ soccer team would be able to use Rec Park in the winter.

“I got two answers: We’d have to let you use the field, and absolutely not,” Lee said. “I’d have to go with absolutely not. And it makes sense. I can’t argue with them on that.”

Larsen said that because of the field conditions, more injuries occur during winter soccer games. Wet weather also could lower attendance and diminish the enjoyment of fans who do show up to watch.

Sonoma County’s other winter high school sports, basketball and wrestling, take place indoors.

The shorter days of winter would impact the games, too. Schools that don’t have lighted fields for both JV and varsity would have to begin games by 3 or 3:30 p.m. in order to finish in daylight. That would impact academics, Piner assistant principal Ryan Thompson said.

Larsen, representing the referees’ association, noted that early starts would be problematic for game officials, most of whom have regular day jobs. He estimated that a move to winter would reduce availability by 48 percent. That, in turn, would likely result in games refereed by two officials rather than the standard three.

Drawing a diagram of a playing field and marking out the responsibilities of the referees, Larsen explained that two officials are less able to get in position for certain calls.

“We miss offside,” he said. “That causes some issues. We just can’t control the game as well with two as you can with three.”

Perhaps the biggest drawback, at least for the smallest schools in the SCL, would be losing the ability to play Coastal Mountain Conference teams. Healdsburg has an official enrollment of 645 students, according to the NCS. El Molino has 594. It is increasingly hard for them to compete with larger public schools like Montgomery and Maria Carrillo, so they schedule preseason games against smaller schools like Willits, Cloverdale and St. Helena. Those teams play in the fall.

This tangle of issues is what convinced local girls’ teams to keep playing in the fall. But they weren’t enough to dissuade the boys’ teams of the NBL, and Analy and Petaluma officials feel the same tug.

They worry that with the best teams playing in winter, elite players will opt to increase their profile by attending, say, Casa Grande instead of Petaluma. Or that they will eschew high school sports altogether and stick to club soccer.

Mostly, though, the Tigers and Trojans are concerned about the looming lack of competition in fall soccer.

“I don’t know how to solve this, but I do think the standard of soccer will go significantly south,” Stirrat said. “I know that’s only part of it, but it should be a significant part of it if you’re a soccer coach.”

His athletic director at Petaluma High, Kathryn Teeter, noted that the Trojans boys’ and girls’ soccer teams both made the NCS Division 1 playoffs this year. And it wasn’t until the semifinal round that either of them played a non-league foe.

“So my boys’ coach is definitely for moving to the winter, so that we can, if we make playoffs again, have a variety of people to compete against instead of playing the same old people or traveling to Arcata for an NCS soccer match,” Teeter said.

Of the 16 teams that made the section D1 playoffs last fall, five were from the NBL and six were from the MCAL. Those schools will be moving to winter, leaving just five teams from the SCL and HDNL. It’s hard to imagine a 16-team bracket under those circumstances, or even a healthy eight-team bracket.

For now, the SCL is likely to remain intact. The future is cloudy. Petaluma, Analy and El Molino all are looking at installing artificial turf fields in the next year or two. Piner will probably get lights. Those schools might rethink winter soccer when the improvements are in place.

As Stirrat said, if the facilities are limiting the ability of students to play at the most competitive level, perhaps it’s time to upgrade the facilities.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.