Benefield: North Bay League starts year of changes by adding St. Vincent

Remember when the old North Bay and Sonoma County leagues disbanded just over a year ago and went on to form what officials deemed a new “Super League”?

Well, after just one year in business, the super league is getting super-er all the time.

In addition to the 12 original schools - Analy, Cardinal Newman, El Molino, Elsie Allen, Healdsburg, Maria Carrillo, Montgomery, Piner, Rancho Cotate, Santa Rosa, Ukiah and Windsor - Roseland University Prep and Sonoma Academy also have teams that participate in individual sports.

Now add to the mix St. Vincent de Paul High. The small private school that most recently competed in the North Central II League in most sports has been given the go-ahead to join the NBL. The move, already approved by the North Coast Section, will go into effect for the 2020-21 school year, meaning all of the upcoming deliberations about which schools in which sports will be in the league’s two divisions just added a new, relatively unknown player.

“When we re-align, St. Vincent will be part of that conversation,” NBL Commissioner Jan Smith Billing said.

Currently in the North Central II League in all sports except football - which plays an independent schedule - St. Vincent will be by far the smallest school in the mix. With 230 students, St. Vincent is well smaller than Healdsburg at about 522 students or El Molino with approximately 569. Santa Rosa is the league’s largest school with nearly 2,000 students.

“You either step up to that level of competition or you stay comfortable playing at the level where you are kind of a big fish,” St. Vincent Principal Patrick Daly said, acknowledging that the Mustangs are now swimming in “a very large pond.”

Looking for a way to limit their team’s travel - which currently includes regular trips to Lake and Mendocino counties, St. Vincent originally petitioned to be included in the Marin County Athletic League, Daly said. They were declined. The North Bay League was the next-best bet, he said.

“We talked to our coaches about it. Overall, we have a fairly new coaching staff across the board, coaches that want to put in the time and effort into building a program, not a team,” he said. “Honestly, not one coach pushed back.”

“In terms of (North Coast Section playoffs), it benefits us. Playing against these larger teams is beneficial,” he said.

Smith Billing has already extended the offer to include St. Vincent’s coaches in discussions of which schools should compete in which NBL divisions, come 2020-21.

Daly said he expects his coaches to offer input, with a catch.

“It’s ‘Go with your hat in hand. Be humble,’” he said. “We’ll take what’s given to us.”

St. Vincent’s inclusion in the league may generate more discussion than the new division assignments. The new-look NBL will now be 13 schools strong - 14 in the winter when Sonoma Academy girls and RUP boys soccer teams join in - and that pushes the conversation about what the league should look like going forward, Smith Billing said.

“I can see us going to two leagues,” Smith Billing said. “It’s already like having two leagues.”

When Smith Billing met Tuesday with athletic directors from the current lineup of NBL schools, she continued to discuss the process of debating division assignments - a process that they will undertake three times this year - after the fall season, the winter season and the spring season.

How the divisions shake out, and whether there is easy consensus or bitter debate, may shape whether the relegation and promotion system is here to stay, or dividing into two distinct leagues is better.

One year in, the two-division format has earned widespread praise from both coaches and ADs, even in the cases where teams might not have been placed in the most competitive situation.

Analy athletic director Joe Ellwood expressed support Tuesday for the current version of the NBL, with two divisions and its promotion-and-relegation concept. It’s working, he said.

“For all of us in the North Bay, we have so much more autonomy and are able to make our own decisions in a league of 12, 13, 14,” he said.

Splitting up the group doesn’t make sense at this point, he said.

But now that everyone knows what it means to be in the Oak Division and what it means to be in the Redwood half, the tenor of the conversations could change as coaches and principals vie for their teams’ placements.

Maria Carrillo athletic director Jerry Deakins on Tuesday offered an educated guess as to where the majority of coaches will want to be.

“Personally, I think every coach is going to want to be in Oak,” he said of the stronger of the two divisions. “The nature of coaching is competition, so the nature of a coach is wanting to coach at the highest level. I think you are going to see predominantly coaches saying, ‘We want to be in the higher division.’”

But Smith Billing will ask for the “Why?”

And that question begs others: What does the junior varsity program look like? What is the athletic strength of the underclassmen? What kind of talent did a program graduate?

And now with addition of St. Vincent, the question will be: How will the numbers work?

No division will have fewer than five schools, but the balance between Redwood and Oak does not have to be equal.

And as they did this season, school and league officials will encourage schools, especially those in the Redwood Division, to not go to sleep on their non-league schedule. Teams have to find the best competition they can, whether it’s in the NBL or not.

As teams compete on the field of play this season, they will be influencing where they and others are placed in 2020.

After that, when the North Coast Section tackles league alignments in full yet again, all bets are off.

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