Joe Simmons and Bud Pochini had different reasons to look forward to their first seasons as head coaches of Calistoga High football and volleyball, respectively.
Simmons, a 2009 Novato High graduate who played football for the Hornets’ 2007 state runner-up and 2008 section runner-up, wasn’t hired by Calistoga High until shortly after predecessor Jim Klaczak stepped down in early October. Simmons assisted Klaczak in 2019.
Despite a frustrating first three months on the job spent overseeing small groups conditioning and following protocol during a COVID-19 pandemic that’s dragged on, and then having his first season at the helm canceled, Simmons wants to stay on as head coach.
He makes a living as a firefighter and emergency medical technician, an unpredictable line of work that recently forced him to work 14 straight days — more than 12 hours a day at times — at Petaluma Valley Hospital during a surge in COVID-19 cases and miss several of the Wildcats’ workouts.
“I was definitely excited when I got the job, that’s for sure. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I stopped playing football, to go back and coach,” he said. “I don’t have any plans to leave and as far as I know, they want me to stay,” he said.
Pochini was looking forward to coaching the volleyball team again, but not as head coach. He assisted former volleyball head coach T’Anne Butcher for years and now helps current softball head coach Melissa Davis. He hopes Calistoga co-athletic directors Eric Heitz and Louise Owens find a head coach before the fall volleyball season, and that he’ll assist that head coach if his services are needed.
Pochini said he filled in as head coach this year because nobody else would.
“I don’t have the time to do all the planning and all that stuff. I’m strictly there for games and practices. Maybe that’s why I can coach, because I never take the whole thing on,” he said. “I’m the interim head coach until they find one. There were people who were possibly going to take the position, but once they found out there weren’t going to be games in the fall they didn’t want to do it. But if they’re going to play, they need to find a head coach.
“I have multiple businesses and I have a Christmas tree farm, and so I just squeeze whatever time out of the sponge and get some exercise at the same time. It’s nice having the Christmas tree farm because I had 11 of the girls on my volleyball team come and work for me, so honestly it’s a great way to vet how these girls are going to be on the court. The hard workers work hard all the time, and the people that try to get away with the least are probably going to practice that way.”
Simmons said 17 football players, mostly underclassmen, participated in conditioning in the fall thinking they would be playing this year.
“I hope they didn’t get too discouraged,” he said.
Heitz and Owens supervised the conditioning sessions when Simmons was busy at the hospital.
“At least it got all the kids off the couch,” Heitz said. “Hopefully they can translate some of that conditioning into being on the track team or baseball or softball later on, if we’re able to get to the red zone.”
As the NCS waits to get moved from its a maximum-restriction purple tier status — in terms of COVID-19 cases — to red, and then orange and yellow, the Wildcats have a coach who definitely knows not to skirt virus protocols after directly helping COVID-19 patients.
“Being an EMT, I can take vitals and blood sugars, and they were kinda short-staffed, so we could do that why they were getting the medicine ready or dealing with other patients at the same time,” he explained. “I worked with COVID patients for about 10 of the 14 days. I got tested (with negative results) before and after I was there. I also got my first dose of the vaccine before I went, and right as it ended I got my second dose. Hopefully I won’t get COVID, but you never know.”
Pochini, whose two youngest daughters graduated from Calistoga two and six years ago, also likes to coach despite having a full plate.
“I coach because my last three kids were girls and I coached them from kindergarten through their senior years. They were three or four years apart, so I coached for 12 years,” he said. “Now I coach because the girls appreciate it. As soon as they stop appreciating it, I’ll probably stop doing it.”
He said that although maybe only two volleyball players are graduating this year, the returners could be rusty in the fall after 20 months of not playing matches.
“It was really disheartening and I just really hope the (returning) girls don’t lose their want to play after not doing it for a year,” said Pochini, who also coaches the junior high volleyball program. “This year we had a bunch of freshmen come out for the team and I think it is going to be another good group of athletes like the group that graduated last year. They’re going to start practicing for other sports now.”
Pochini wasn’t surprised volleyball was canceled after the holiday surges in COVID-19 cases.
“During the summer, it seemed like the pandemic was slowing down. But then through all the holidays and stuff, everyone was meeting together when they should have been quarantining, and I knew this volleyball was never going to make it,” he said.
St. Helena football head coach Brandon Farrell didn’t seem surprised Sunday that his sport had been canceled this school year.
“The realization that there may not be a football season, or any fall and winter sport, has been a possibility since July,” he said. “Once it got later in the school year and new guidelines came out placing many of our fall and winter sports in a color tier more difficult to achieve than that of our league’s spring sports, it became apparent football would most likely not happen.
“I have not seen our kids have a poor attitude about any of it to be honest. Many of them participate in spring sports and the potential for a longer and somewhat ‘full’ season in those activities should be just as exciting for them as a football season would have been. It would be horribly selfish for our football program to hold out for a minimal number of games when no one knows how long it will take for our county to get to the orange tier, hence preventing those kids from starting a spring sport.
“Our coaches, who assisted with conditioning during the summer and periodically during the fall, were fantastic. Our kids hung in there as long as they could but football was just not in the cards this year for our league. It’s OK and I’m proud of how many times they came out for conditioning without a clear sense of what the end game was going to be.”
Farrell, who teaches at the school, is now hoping the softball team he also coaches — and his daughter plays for — can have the season it didn’t get last year.
Pochini has also moved on to softball.
“We just got off a Zoom meeting for softball and Melissa Davis and I, who have been coaching it for a few years together, are already thinking about trying to get the girls out there to do a little cohort conditioning. Hopefully some of those new girls will play softball, too.
Heitz had a videoconference with other Coastal Mountain Conference representatives on Monday and said sports schedules will be created over the next couple of weeks. The delay is necessary to get all of the CMC schools on the same page.
“The difficulty is that not every school knows if what sports they will be able to play until they have kids back on campus,” he said. “There’s another athletic director meeting on Feb. 16 and between now and then, the ADs will talk to the coaches and families and see what sports they might be doing. Then we’ll start putting together some league schedules.
“Most of that won’t happen until April or so. In the meantime, we’re allowed to play pickup games or preseason games with anybody we want to, but they also want a conference schedule. It might not be North Central League I, II and III like we normally have, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens. But at least something will happen and so we’re headed in the right direction, we hope.”
The plan for the first half of the runners’ season is to have cross country meets, with track and field meets in the second half.
“We’re going to try to get them out in the wilderness and vineyards or wherever we can to make a cross country course and still keep it safe,” Heitz said. “Six or seven schools are definitely interested in having meets in a few weeks or the beginning of March. We’ve had six or seven kids who have been conditioning out here a couple times a week for the last couple of months, so we’re anxious to get those kids in some type of competition.”
If it’s any consolation, Heitz said Calistoga didn’t have a lot of senior athletes this school year.
“We’re loaded this year with juniors and I’m very hopeful that we get to play everything next year because this is kind of our cream-of-the-crop year,” he said. “Next year’s seniors are going to be the best we’ve ever had, probably — mostly for the boys. We have a lot of strong, powerful, athletic boys that are juniors this year that missed out on soccer and football. That’s exciting, but they missed out on this junior year.
“We’ll see what happens with baseball, but I’m hoping a lot of those kids choose to do track right now to get something going, especially those guys who are so strong at soccer. They can definitely run sprints, relays or the jumps. But they might hold out and see what happens with baseball, because they can condition for baseball if they choose to now.”
Heitz said he, Owens and cross country head coach Casey Cumby Jones will need to create a course because the parks where they usually practice and compete are closed.
“We’ll see how things work for cross country with transportation and whether we can get teams together at an off-site place,” Heitz said. “It’s good to feel it out with that sport since the teams are a little smaller and easier to manage. Pacific Union College is interested in joining in with us and some of the other school to do some cross country also.
“We’ll talk with Coach Jones and try to find a winery or maybe the fairgrounds will let us use the golf course areas. We can make a course somewhere. If nothing else, virtual meets have been proposed. If Upper Lake can’t travel or we can’t go to them, we’ll figure out a 3-mile distance with 1,000 feet of elevation gain and push our stopwatches and everybody just runs. It’s not running next to each other, but it’s something to do and it’s kind of a competition.”
In the CMC, only cross country, baseball, softball and the coed sports of golf, swimming, tennis, and track and field can be contested this school year. For the runners, St. Helena Athletic Director Tom Hoppe said, cross country would be held first and then track and field after that.
Even cross country will be risky, Hoppe said Monday, because of athletes and coaches needing to maintain social distance when traveling to meets. Meets could instead be held virtually, where timers start stopwatches at the same time by coordinating online.
The June 12 deadline will be too late for the CMC, Hoppe said Monday, because the school year for some of the Lake County schools in the conference will end Friday, May 21.
“We’ve always finished before everybody’s out of school, but we won’t have games and meets until the middle of March,” he said. “Nobody’s ready yet. Our coaches are still getting certified and everything, and students are still taking care of physicals. Also, nobody (in the CMC) is in session but us. They’re all doing distance learning still. I think Middletown and Lower Lake have 35-40 kids on campus at a time. So there are a lot of hoops to jump through, getting board permission and all that, before this is going to take place.”
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