The North Coast Section Executive Committee came together in a special teleconference Friday to discuss two proposals in response to the North Bay wildfires that kept athletics at a standstill for multiple weeks in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
Schools across the region kept their doors closed as the threat of the fires loomed and air quality was at hazardous levels. That meant no practices and no games for thousands of prep athletes.
To curb the potential impact of all those cancellations, the committee voted 9-3 in favor of waiving the “even record” rule, which acts as a standard for determining playoff eligibility. If a team has an even record overall, in league or against division opponents, they can apply for the NCS championship playoffs.
With this moratorium, which will only affect this year’s fall sports teams, any school can now apply, but NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon clarified that “doesn’t mean they’re accepted.”
“We just didn’t feel in these devastating circumstances of the fire and then the resulting cancellation of games because of the air quality that it made sense to prevent somebody from participating if they had to cancel games,” said Lemmon.
As first responders steadily gained control over each blaze, the fate of high school sports became a recurring question. The NCS, which oversees the Marin County Athletic League and the Coastal Mountain Conference that Justin-Siena, St. Helena, Calistoga call home, tried to weigh possible scenarios to give prep athletes a fair chance to pursue their playoff aspirations.
“What happens with a school that maybe lost one or two games in football or maybe multiple games in girls volleyball – or any sport – that ended up trying to apply for the championships and they don’t have an even record?” Lemmon said. “Maybe the one or two games they end up having canceled were pivotal and now they’re not able to achieve that.”
The other item the committee discussed was the possibility of adding one week to the regular season to allow affected schools the opportunity to make up some of their missed games. In football, brackets would have been reduced from 16 teams to eight, and Lemmon estimated some 25 programs would have been left out.
The NCS opened the discussion up to the public, with satellite sites setup for local supporters to chime in. Lemmon said the committee wanted to emphasize the importance of discussion with these matters and, after the public chimed in, no motion was made on shortening the playoffs.
“After hearing the public input, some of that coming from individuals in the Sonoma County area who were directly affected by the fires … their feeling was, at a time when people want to get back to as normal as possible and to take away those opportunities, that would actually cause schools to be disappointed in that decision,” Lemmon said. “Then the other thing is they felt that, even with that extra week, it didn’t mean schools were actually going to make up a game. They had kind of already adjusted to it and moved forward.”
St. Helena and Justin-Siena high schools both missed two weeks of games. Calistoga was under mandatory evacuations for the better part of five days as the Tubbs Fire came within two miles of the town.
This week, as classes resumed, fall sports teams were able to get back together and prepare for the final week of the regular season. The impact of missing that time remains to be seen. But at least each team will have a fair chance to let the last week and everything that happened before the fires sell their chances on making the postseason.
“This is not the year to restrict participation,” Lemmon said. “This is the year to embrace it.”