The future of North Central League III football was uncertain last year when multiple teams struggled to field rosters for the 8-man format.
Programs like Mendocino, Round Valley and Point Arena were forced to shut down their seasons over the course of the campaign, affecting the overall continuity of the remaining seven schools, including Calistoga High, who joined the NCL III in 2015.
The Wildcats only played six regular season games as opposed to the eight that were initially scheduled. To meet even that mark they had to scramble to add Pinewood during an open slot originally slated for Round Valley, forcing them to travel to Los Altos Hills in the South Bay Area.
Robert Pinoli, commissioner of the Coastal Mountain Conference, the governing body for the league, said last October that they might have to explore disbanding the NCL III if a similar situation repeated where 40 percent of the teams were forfeiting games due to a lack of numbers.
That said, as a new school year approaches, the future suddenly seems brighter.
After the 2016 season concluded, the NCL III expanded its football roster from 10 teams to 14, adding Branson, Stuart Hall, South Fork and Roseland Collegiate Prep, which will compete in the sport for the first time.
The new additions also helped stomach canceled seasons that hindered it in seasons past. Mendocino and Point Arena will not have teams this fall, although the Pirates do have a JV team in place and are expected to return next year, Pinoli said.
The other 12 teams will push forward and, if there are any late surprises, Pinoli will know after the CMC athletic director’s meeting on Aug. 22.
“Usually by then we pretty much know who is going to have (a team) and who’s not going to have (one),” he said.
To account for the increased number of teams, the NCL III has been divided into a North and a South.
Additionally, since there are more teams vying for a berth in the Redwood Bowl championship, a four-team playoff has been instituted, taking the top two teams from the North and South. The No. 1 team from the North will play the No. 2 team from the South, and vice versa. The playoffs will be on Oct. 27-28, and the Redwood Bowl will be a week later, Nov. 3-4.
Pinoli has been lobbying for a deeper postseason that goes beyond the Redwood Bowl since the number 8-man teams are growing throughout the region.
“There’s enough schools where we could do a NorCal (playoff) with four of the bigger sections,” he said. “That’s what I’m working on, trying to get that through, and (the CIF is) dragging their feet. But I think eventually they’ll come around.”
Calistoga, who lost the championship game to Rincon Valley Christian last year, will compete in the NCL III South, and goes up against Branson, Potter Valley, RVC, Stuart Hall and Tomales.
The Wildcats’ farthest league opponent is Stuart Hall, which is approximately 74 miles south in San Francisco. That game, on Oct. 14, will be their second trip to Marin County in three weeks since they also visit Branson in Ross on Sept. 28.
The Wildcats will play NCL III North members Round Valley, RCP, and Anderson Valley during the non-league, “interlock” portion of the calendar over the first four weeks of the season. However, those results won’t factor into their league record.
The competition is undoubtedly stiffer for Calistoga, with Branson coming off a 6-0 season and Stuart Hall going 5-2 and 5-0 as champions of the Mission Trail League. In fact, last year Branson defeated both of the league champions in their new league, Stuart Hall and RVC, handing RVC its only loss in 2016 — a 50-42 slugfest on homecoming night.
The NCL III North, on the other hand, is noticeably weaker. Anderson Valley and Laytonville are the only two teams that were .500 or better in 2016, while Round Valley and RCP didn’t play a single game.
Because of that, Pinoli said the league might explore realignment after the season.
“There’s some good schools down there and it should be interesting to see how it plays out this year. We may have to go back to the drawing board (because) the North is not quite as strong, but there’s some real good teams in the North. So we’ll see what happens this year. But it should be very interesting to see.”
Calistoga’s athletic director Karen Yoder views the expansion as a positive step for both her program and the adapted version of the game that’s helped keep the sport alive in smaller rural communities.
“The growth of 8-man football proves that there’s more opportunities for our student-athletes to compete in football, and (to go up against) relative school population sizes that are similar to Calistoga,” she said. “So I’m happy. I think it just creates more opportunities and more schools for us to compete against.”