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Benefield: High school football teams deserved better than a coin flip

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Flipping a coin was never a great plan.

Flipping a coin thumbed a nose at each team’s body of work, it disregarded the expert opinion that was sought and heeded by North Coast Section officials when seedings were announced and it threw out any notion of competitive equity.

Flipping a coin undermined the very notion of competition.

And it didn’t have to be this way.

Cardinal Newman, seeded first in the North Coast Section Division 3 football tournament, beat No. 4 seed El Cerrito 38-0 in the semifinal game Friday night. But the Cardinals won’t play for the section championship this weekend and they won’t play in the NorCal region tournament. They won’t play at all. Their season is over.

Because of a coin flip.

A brief recap: The deadly Camp fire in Butte County affected air quality across the North Bay so severely in recent weeks that football games were postponed to the point that there was not enough time to play out the postseason. Two teams reached the finals in divisions 2-5, but without time to play the championship game and determine which team would move on to the NorCal regional game.

In a special conference call Nov. 14 with the NCS executive committee (for which five members were absent), it was determined that two criteria would be used to decide which of the championship game teams would advance.

First, if the teams had played earlier in the season, the team that won would move on. And if that didn’t decide it, a coin would be flipped.

It was later agreed that if the two teams that reached the championship games in their divisions did not want to play in the NorCal regional game, they could agree to play the NCS title game instead. But that choice would prevent them from the possibility of advancing to the NorCal regional game because that tournament would already be underway.

When the coin flip plan was adopted, there were murmurs of disbelief locally, mainly because three of the four local teams still in the tournament were No. 1 seeds and were clear losers if the plan was adopted. But there was hope in mid-November that the air would clear, the games would be played and the coin flip debate would be moot.

But the air didn’t clear. And it soon became obvious that the section tournament brackets could not be completed in time.

Three Redwood Empire teams had to make a choice before they played their respective semifinal games. Both Kelseyville, seeded No. 1, and Middletown, the No. 5 seed — who faced off in Division 5 — said they would forgo NorCals and play for the section title should they prevail. Rancho Cotate, the top seed in Division 2, said the same.

But Cardinal Newman, the top seed in Division 3, took a vote among its seniors — and it was decided they would rather try for a chance to play deeper into the state tournament, even though that route would mean surviving a coin flip.

On Friday, Rancho Cotate was upset by No. 5 seed Marin Catholic, ending the Cougars’ season. Middletown upset Kelseyville and will play Salesian Prep at Alhambra High School Saturday night for the NCS Division 5 championship.

And Newman beat No. 4 seed El Cerrito 38-0.

So it came down to a Sunday morning coin flip between No. 1 Cardinal Newman and No. 2 Eureka to decide would advance to the NorCal regional game this Friday.

The Cardinals picked tails. It landed on heads.

The Cardinals knew they were taking a chance. They knew the risks and the rewards and they agreed, largely because they felt they had a squad that not only could win a section title, but that could do something more in NorCals and beyond. The risk was worth it to them.

But this is not about Cardinal Newman losing a coin flip. And it’s not even solely about Cardinal Newman.

The looming possibility of a coin flip clearly informed the postseason plans of all local teams in the lead-up to the semifinals. It was a major distraction at a time when teams don’t need another distraction.

And it was never a good plan.

At the Nov. 14 teleconference, the NCS executive committee was presented with three options if the bracket could not be completed: Send no team, flip a coin or advance the team with the higher seed.

Then a committee member floated, and the majority eventually supported, a fourth option: Use head-to-head records between the two teams. If that doesn’t decide it, flip a coin.

But they almost didn’t vote at all.

The meeting, scheduled to begin by phone at 9 a.m., was not called to order until 42 minutes later because it took that long to get seven members, enough for a quorum, on the line.

Before that, at 9:33 a.m., Eric Volta — the superintendent of the Liberty High Union School District and the executive committee facilitator — presumably tired of waiting for the seventh member to call in, told NCS Commissioner Gil Lemmon that if a quorum couldn’t be reached, “then you will just have to make an administrative decision.”

Lemmon has been on the record supporting the section staff’s option of advancing the higher seed. So by that measure, Cardinal Newman missed its chance to go to the NorCal regional game by nine minutes.

Although not perfect, advancing the higher seed was a better choice in a difficult situation.

Rankings should mean something. Before this all began, as they do every season, a group of experts appointed by the NCS convened early on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 28 to consider strength of schedule, win-loss records, head-to-head contests. Their job? To rank the teams in the playoffs to determine who plays whom, who gets a bye and who gets home-field advantage.

Teams work all season long to earn those benefits. To disregard the value of that seeding system at the moment in the season when it is most crucial is nonsensical.

The notion of competitive equity is hot in the prep sports world now. Officials have the ability to move teams and schools from one division to another if it makes a division more competitive.

What does putting advancement to the NorCal tourney up to a coin flip tell us about the section’s commitment to competitive equity? Eleven days before the fires erupted, a section committee determined Cardinal Newman was the best team in North Coast Section Division 3 football. Why should that determination be undone by a coin flip?

Eureka High will now represent the NCS in the NorCal tournament. Not because Eureka won anything, but because they picked heads instead of tails.

The notion of the coin flip not only disrespects the two teams, it disrespects the work of the section’s own committee that presumably worked hard and took time to rank teams in terms of their body of work throughout the season. At the moment that their expert opinion should have held the most weight, it was tossed out the window — and we tossed a coin instead.

And this is not a dig on Eureka’s football team. Not at all. They played by the rules at hand and prevailed. On top of that, they look to be a darned good football team, running up a 12-0 record this season.

But it should be Cardinal Newman suiting up against Menlo-Atherton on Friday night, not the Loggers.

Cardinal Newman officials submitted an appeal to play on — in a different division. CIF sent a denial Tuesday.

You could question why a lower seed would have any incentive to play hard to make it to the championship game if advancement beyond that was based solely on seeding.

That’s a logical question, but it doesn’t take into account a team’s heart or a senior’s desire to get everything out of his final high school football game. I don’t think you would have seen teams giving up.

Perhaps a plan could have been hatched that would have weighted a coin toss to give a higher seed a higher percentage chance of prevailing over, say, 10 flips of the coin. Mathematically, there were ways to make this a better option.

No plan was going to satisfy everyone, to be sure. But the plan the committee picked managed to generate dissatisfaction from nearly every corner. From a functional standpoint, the way our systems respond to tragedy, change and disruption should alleviate questions and doubts, not sow new ones.

It didn’t have to be this way. Which means it shouldn’t be this way again.

Section officials meet again in February to discuss governance, bylaws — all the sausage-making stuff we generally don’t care about until we do, until it affects teams and players and coaches we know.

We are in our second year of once-in-a-lifetime firestorm tragedies.

In 2017, the Tubbs fire ripped a hole in the fall schedule. In light of incomplete schedules from some teams, section officials met and decided to loosen rules about which teams qualified for the playoffs.

That same kind of emergency meeting was necessary this season.

Clearly, it’s time to put something in the books that maps out what happens when games — playoff or otherwise — become unplayable. Parameters for advancement should be not decided as postseason games are under way.

The players on these teams have been training for months, even years, to reach this moment. Their fate should not be decided by a last-minute administrative decision.

Mother Nature is hard to predict. The playoff schedule and the protocol teams follow should not be.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.