Road worries? History indicates playing without a 
home field can become a positive thing

Manny Lopes was a member of the 1989 Petaluma High football team that went 11-1 even though it played without a home field. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)

Manny Lopes was a member of the 1989 Petaluma High football team that went 11-1 even though it played without a home field. (BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)



In Seattle, there’s the vaunted 12th man. Golden State Warriors fans turn their arena into “Roaracle.”

Coaches, players and — at least as importantly — fans invest huge amounts of faith into cultivating the home-field advantage and the benefits it may bring.

Even in high school football, there is something special about competing on familiar turf. Your field. Your fans. Your stadium. Your locker rooms. Your home.

As prep football season kicks off Friday in the North Bay, three Sonoma County schools will essentially be homeless. They will have no home-field advantage.

Analy and El Molino in the Sonoma County league will play every game this season on other schools’ terrain since their own fields are being renovated and covered in new artificial surfaces. Casa Grande in the North Bay League remains hopeful of playing its final regular-season game on a refurbished home field but will otherwise be on the road all season.

Does that mean those teams are looking at average seasons? Do they just assume they’re starting out behind without having even played a game?
Not hardly.

Sonoma County’s last two vagabond football teams tallied impressive road-only seasons.

In 1989, Petaluma’s Durst Field was undergoing renovations, forcing the Trojans to become gypsies for the year, playing midday and Saturday games, wedging their schedule into other schools’ calendars.

They went 10-0 during the regular season, 11-1 overall, and advanced to the NCS 2A semifinals before losing to eventual state champs Marin Catholic.

Members of the 1989 Petaluma High School varsity football team. (Photo courtesy of Manny Lopes)

Members of the 1989 Petaluma High School varsity football team. (Photo courtesy of Manny Lopes)

In 2007, Rancho Cotate’s 1960s field was being rebuilt, and the Cougars went 7-1 in league, 10-3 overall, including the playoffs.

“That ’89 Trojans team was unbelievable,” said Manny Lopes, a senior running back and linebacker that year under longtime coach Steve Ellison.

“At first it started off as a negative, but if you get the right mindset, it can become a positive. If you can take other teams out of their comfort zone, you can use it to your advantage.”

Ellison, now a coaching consultant, broke the news to his team that they’d be playing in front of hostile crowds all year at the end of spring practice.

Lopes, the team captain, wasn’t happy.

“I was a mess,” he said. “I was distraught.”

There were about three dozen seniors on that team, he said, and they were all disappointed they’d miss out on the pomp and circumstance of home games.

“You’re looking forward to homecoming, the parade, the floats. You look at the schedule and our big rival then was Healdsburg, you think, ‘We got them at home. It’s going to be payback.’”

But the Trojans ended up flipping the scenario — using the Saturday day games to their advantage since they couldn’t have the “Friday Night Lights” home-field atmosphere.

The team got an extra day of rest and an extra day of prep, and Lopes became a believer in day games. So much so that the rare night game was a little nerve-wracking.

“The funniest part was that we went into our ninth game with an 8-0 record needing a win over Sonoma at Sonoma on a Friday night,” Ellison said. “Lopes expressed a genuine concern that we were a day-game team and a night game would be bad luck for us.”

Petaluma won the night game, 20-3, and finished the regular season 10-0.

“So it all worked out,” Ellison said.

This season, Analy will play its designated “home” games at Rancho Cotate while El Molino will call Windsor its home for five games. Casa Grande’s “home” games will be at a mix of Santa Rosa High, SRJC and Petaluma High.

In 2007, Rancho coach Ed Conroy’s team also turned the potential negative into a rallying point, wearing “Road Warriors” shirts their booster club had printed up for them.

“It shouldn’t matter. To me, if you’re stressing to your kids how to practice and prepare, that part of the equation doesn’t change,” he said. “Even if the venue changes, you still try to play the way you’d play at home, at a high level, with focus and high intensity.”

Still, he acknowledged, playing at home now does spell success for the Cougars.

They haven’t lost a home game since the 2009 season, going 27-0 in that period, and 37-3 since their inaugural season on their new field.

“Being at home is a huge advantage for us,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was that big of a deal.”

Scientists and statisticians have long studied the home-field advantage concept and whether science backs it up or if it’s part of the mental game all athletes compete in, intentionally or not.

A 2010 paper by University of Rochester social psychologist Jeremy P. Jamieson analyzed six decades of results from team sports and individual competitions including golf, tennis and boxing and calculated that those who are competing at home tend to win a bit more than 60 percent of the time.

The 2011 book “Scorecasting” showed clear home-field advantages in baseball, hockey, football, basketball and soccer — with Major League Soccer teams totaling the highest home winning rate at 69.1 percent.

Closer to home, the Golden State Warriors racked up a 39-2 home record during their championship run last season.

Scientists differ in why, exactly, playing at home leads to more victories, but in 2003, Northumbria (U.K.) University neuroscientists Nick Neave and Sandy Wolfson found that salivary testosterone levels in British professional soccer players were significantly higher before a home game than an away game.

The effect was more pronounced if the home team players perceived the visitors as an “extreme” rival more than merely a “moderate” rival.

They theorized that the home team’s hormonal surge is an evolutionary holdover, related to animal species’ territoriality — the instinct to vigorously defend their home ranging area against intruders.

Analy coach Daniel Bourdon and El Molino’s Randy Parmeter both said they’re not giving too much weight to the home-field advantage discussion.

“We’re not necessarily trying to use it as a motivating factor like some would,” said Bourdon, adding that he’d welcome fan support at the team’s temporary Rohnert Park home.

Parmeter of El Molino hopes his team will feel a little home consistency with their five games at Windsor, though he, too, said the coaching staff wasn’t focusing on it much.

“If you worry about the home-field advantage, you don’t have it. That’s my theory, anyway,” he said.

“It’s a bummer for your seniors. But as long as we’ve got 100 yards and guys in striped shirts, we’ll be OK.”

Lopes, who helped his homeless 1989 Petaluma team to the section semifinals and coached with Ellison for the next 20 years, said if this season’s two road teams get into the right mindset, they could do big things too.

“You can’t allow the circumstances to control your destiny,” he said. “Life is going to give you challenges. What are you going to do with them? Are you going to moan and groan about it or make the best of it? The ’89 team made the best of it.

“Analy might be able to duplicate it. El Molino might be able to.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.