League lament: Guess who’s coming to eat us for dinner

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman April 4, 2013 20:05

mascotsFrom reactions up in these thar hills, you’d think the USC Trojans were moving down to Division III, intent on terrorizing the Cal Tech Beavers, Whittier Poets and Pomona Sagehens.

But instead it’s Sonora High that’s moving – to the Mother Lode League, where in 2014 it will likely join six neighboring Sierra foothill schools in more than a dozen sports. The pending switch has spurred a downright phobic reaction from MLL members. And the most vehement opposition has come from the Wildcats’ most natural rival: the cross-county Summerville Bears.

The reason? Fear of losing.

“When you throw us into the same league, you take away our kids being able to win,” said Summerville District Superintendent John Keiter, pointing out that Sonora High has several hundred more students than his school and other campuses in the small-school league. “You’d have winners in this part of the community and losers in that part of the community, and I think that’s atrocious.”

Keiter’s March protest, ironically, came just as Summerville’s basketball team was winning the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 championship.  And Sonora?  Its squad didn’t even make the division playoffs and lost twice to the Bears during the regular season.

On the other hand, according to Summerville Athletic Director Debbie Mager, a survey of all sports indicates that Sonora has whipped MLL schools in about 70 percent of the non-league games they have played.

The proposal for Sonora to leave the eight-team Valley Oak League came as the school’s own dropping enrollment (now about 1,000, down from a peak of 1,700) made it the smallest member of the circuit. The VOL is now populated by San Joaquin Valley campuses with from 1,300 to 1,700 students.

The all but formalized league switch will make Sonora the MLL’s second largest school, behind Calaveras. On the low end are Summerville, Bret Harte and Linden, which have enrollments closer to 600 and are leading the Block-Sonora charge. Their opposition is so vehement that there has been talk of the three schools simply refusing to play the Wildcats in football, a sport that’s become a flash point in this debate.

“I’d certainly think about it,” said Keiter of a grid boycott.

“If our kids could get hurt, I’d consider it,” added Mager.

Bear football and hoops coach Ben Watson, a 1976 Sonora High grad who over the past five years has led his Summerville squads to playoff glory, is also dead-set against Sonora’s league switch.

But have his gridders forfeit to the Wildcats and not even take the field? “I’m not going there,” laughed Watson, who knows that any coach making such a decision would have his name taken in vain at watering holes across the county.

Think about it: What if “Hoosiers” coach Norman Dale told Hickory High squad not to take the court against South Bend for the Indiana state championship? What kind of movie would that have been?

“Hoosiers,” of course, was based on Milan High School’s improbable, inspirational 1954 championship win over Muncie Central, a school with more than 10 times the 161 enrollment of its underdog foe. Such Cinderella stories highlight the sports landscape and Summerville has one of its own: In 1978 the Bears’ girls track team shocked schools five times its size by winning the section championship.

But over at Summerville, Cinderella may never make it to the ball, let alone try on the glass slipper. The sweetness of an upset football win over Sonora – labeled a “bully on the block” by MLL Commissioner and longtime Bret Harte coach Rich Cathcart – may be taken from Bear, BH Bullfrog and Linden Lion football players if their schools go the forfeit route.

In the interests of avoiding that predicament, I have a few rule book-bending compromise solutions:

  • Based on enrollment differentials, make Sonora start MLL games with fewer players. For instance, Wildcats might begin games with seven or eight to the Bears’ 11. If the underdog somehow took a lead into the second half, Sonora could add a player or two.
  • As some MLL critics have said their players could get hurt against bigger, stronger Sonora counterparts, set a one-ton total team weight limit. That’s about 180 pounds per player, so if the Wildcats played three 260-pound linemen, its other eight players on the field would have to average a far less intimidating 150.
  • Boost Sonora’s MLL opponents by allowing them four points for each field goal and five downs per possession. Allow their O-lines to hold with impunity. As a last resort, force Sonora pass rushers to advance on opposing quarterbacks only by hopping in potato sacks.

Alas, section officials won’t buy into any of this. So the MLL should look at the bright side: The pressure’s all on Sonora, which will enter the league in a lose-lose situation. It will be expected to easily win every football game, and each loss will be an inspirational upset for the winner and an unforgivable failure for the Wildcats.

Also, winning is overrated. It’s losing that builds the character, resilience and sense of humor necessary to weather life’s setbacks.  But as good as it is, losing is also temporary. Enrollments and talent levels change, and every underdog – except, perhaps, the Chicago Cubs – has his day.

On the local front, Sonora High will save thousands in travel expenses by not busing teams to Tracy and Manteca for VOL games, and even Summerville will save a buck or two by trading a few trips to Jackson for 20-minute jaunts to Sonora.  Both Tuolumne County schools will benefit from huge gate receipts, not only from their annual football clash but from matches, games and meets in a variety of sports.

Finally, Keiter, Watson and others fear the realignment will prompt eighth-grade football players and their parents to forsake the Bears and seek inter-district transfers to Sonora. Perhaps, but here’s the good news: The league realignment will have absolutely no effect on how the schools involved educate their students. Nothing Sonora does will affect Summerville’s rising API test scores or its invariably stellar Academic Decathlon performances.   columns-of-columns

This might sound naive, but aren’t these things what eighth-graders and their parents should be looking for in a school?

Chris Bateman, 66, is a journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun – high school football included.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman, halliebateman.com.

Copyright 2013, Friends and Neighbors Magazine



Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman April 4, 2013 20:05
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  1. Bob Lema April 5, 09:14

    My great-nephew went to Portola High in Plumas County, with an enrollment of less than 600. In 2009, Portola put together a dream season, winning the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Section title with a perfect 12-0 won-loss record. He was part of that team. The quality of coaching and parent involvement were the keys to making the players into a remarkable team. During that season, one of the players’ fathers had died during the week between games, and the Portola High team decided to score the same number of points as the jersey number of the kid who lost his dad. And they did. And they won the game.


  2. Nancy April 7, 18:03

    Bob Lema, your beautiful story brought tears to my eyes. Wow, thank you for sharing it.
    Chris, was not Sonora High the smaller team many a time while playing in the VOL? Did they ALWAYS lose their games because they were smaller? I don’t think that was the case, and I don’t remember them whining and threatening to boycott games because they had to play against bigger, badder Manteca or Modesto or whoever.
    I attended Wildcat Friday Night Lights for close to a decade and frankly was less interested in the football score than I was in the fact that these wonderful high school athletes – on both sides – were all playing their hearts out. I loved the band music, the cheerleaders, the families in the stands.
    Shame on the Summerville superintendent and others who are underestimating their own student-athletes, coaches and families.

  3. Robert Dorroh April 21, 16:49

    Chris, congratulations for your most inisghtful look into the world of petty high-school administrators and sporting officials. And, while I’m at it, the countless obnoxious and verbally abusive fans I’ve encountered in nearly a lifetime of attending prep sporting events. As usual, your sardonic screed locked me in from beginning to end.

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