High School Sports

High school soccer in the winter gets hot, cold reception

Boys, girls prep soccer teams weather new season

Roseville High senior defender Ryan Poindexter and Christian Brothers boys coach Jacob Hunley talk
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Roseville High senior defender Ryan Poindexter and Christian Brothers boys coach Jacob Hunley talk

Del Oro High School has built a statewide reputation for football excellence, repeatedly contending for CIF NorCal Regional and State Bowl championships – including last week’s appearance in the Division I-A title game – in the past decade.

It’s something Del Oro senior Taylor Evinger hopes the Golden Eagles’ successful girls soccer program can experience someday, now that the Sac-Joaquin Section girls and boys soccer seasons are played in the winter.

“That’s something we would want, especially having won section (championships) the last three years,” she said. “We want to get that next thing.”

One of the benefits of moving the boys from the fall and girls from the spring to the winter season is the potential for CIF NorCal and state championships similar to those in football and boys and girls basketball.

“It would be exciting because we can see the best and how our programs stack up,” said Roseville High’s Pablo Gutierrez, in his 41st season as the Tigers’ boys soccer coach. “(Our region does) pretty well in football at the state level, and I feel we could do real well in soccer, too.”

One beneficiary of expanded playoffs that are expected to start as early as next year could be Jesuit, which usually is ranked among the top teams in the nation during the fall and has won a section-best 11 boys titles under coach Paul Rose, California’s all-time wins leader.

It would be exciting because we can see the best and how our programs stack up. (Our region does) pretty well in football at the state level, and I feel we could do real well in soccer, too.

Roseville High boys soccer coach Pablo Gutierrez, on the potential to play for CIF NorCal and state championships

But Rose has given playing in the winter a lukewarm reception.

“I much prefer playing in the fall,” Rose said. “Maybe if we get a chance to have that (NorCal) playoff experience, then I might think it’s worth it, but right now I would rather just play in the fall and my section. Playing conditions are better, and 85 percent of the schools in the country play in the fall.”

The CIF’s official season for boys and girls soccer traditionally has been the start of November through February, and Southern California has held regional boys and girls championships in early March for years.

Most Bay Area schools also have played in the winter, but Sacramento-area schools have been slow to embrace the move because of tradition, concerns about inclement weather and a lack of access to all-weather fields at many institutions.

But after years of failed proposals, the Sac-Joaquin Section board of managers voted 31-23 in 2015 to join most California schools in playing during the winter. Though area coaches and athletic directors have had 18 months to prepare for the move, the change has been met with mixed reviews after seven weeks.

I much prefer playing in the fall. Maybe if we get a chance to have that (NorCal) playoff experience, then I might think it’s worth it, but right now I would rather just play in the fall and my section. Playing conditions are better, and 85 percent of the schools in the country play in the fall.

Jesuit boys soccer coach Paul Rose, on the season moving from the fall to winter

Among the positives:

▪ It reduces conflicts with club soccer and physical wear and tear on athletes, especially girls.

▪ It better balances the seasons for the section’s sports menu. The section sponsors nine sports in the spring, six in the fall and now three in the winter with the addition of soccer.

▪ Boys can play another sport in the fall, and girls can do so in the spring.

Among the negatives:

▪ The quality of play can be compromised in wet and cold weather, fan support is hindered, and scheduling can be a nightmare for schools with only grass fields and no lights.

“You have the have and the have-nots,” said Christian Brothers boys soccer coach Jacob Hunley, who had to give up coaching the girls because of the change. “For those that have the facilities, playing both the boys and girls seasons during the winter is great. But those that don’t are really going to struggle. I fear we may see some schools having to drop the sport.”

▪ There may not be enough referees to handle the large volume of matches with the consolidation of girls and boys soccer into the same season and with some schools fielding as many as six soccer teams at the varsity, JV and freshman levels.

▪ The switch in seasons also has forced some athletes to choose soccer or basketball. Colfax canceled its JV girls basketball program this year, partly because six athletes who played basketball the year before at the school chose soccer this season.

“Right now, it’s too early to say whether this is a good move or not,” said Elk Grove girls soccer coach and athletic director Seth Boyle. “We really need to play a full season to see if it’s worth it. But right now, my gut feeling, based on being involved in soccer for more than 30 years, is that it will be better for the girls.”

Boyle said that during the spring, there was a six-week overlap between club and high school soccer that had some girls playing and practicing seven days a week.

“With club, State Cup, ODP (Olympic Development Program) tryouts and high school, you’d have some girls playing on three different teams during March and April. Now, maybe the girls will be able to be more invested in high school soccer; maybe it will have a little more meaning for them.”

Del Oro girls soccer coach Ron Benjamin thinks the move has one big benefit – it reduces wear and tear on players.

“I believe the number of injuries is going to be down significantly just because they are not being overused or overtrained,” Benjamin said.

Under CIF rules, high school players can practice with their club teams during the winter but are not allowed to play in club games or tournaments, which the girls could when they played out of season in the spring.

Evinger said playing high school and club soccer in the spring was a physical and mental grind, especially on top of academics.

“It’s nice as a player to focus on the chemistry of one team instead of worrying about how two different teams play,” said Evinger, who also plays for the Placer United Soccer Club.

But with more teams playing and practicing at the same time, the lack of an all-weather field and/or expanded practice areas is a huge issue for some schools.

“During the fall and spring, we probably have two of the better grass fields in the area,” Christian Brothers’ Hunley said. “But when they are wet, soggy and muddy, they are unplayable for games.”

Christian Brothers has had to rent Hughes Stadium this season for its home games. It’s also renting lights for practices at its Oak Park campus because it gets dark so early.

“So now we have extra costs, we don’t get to play any home games, and we practice on grass but play games on turf,” Hunley said. “Yet we still feel we’re fortunate. I know other schools that have just one field and don’t have the same resources as us.”

For schools with all-weather fields, some coaches see the switch in seasons as a chance for their programs to thrive. Because football had priority to the stadium in the fall, Roseville High’s Gutierrez said his boys rarely got to practice on turf. This season, they are always on turf and are off to their best start in years at 5-0-2.

“Now that conflict is gone and we can use the football field, and that’s better for us because on turf the game is so fast-paced and smooth,” Gutierrez said. “You can really show your skills.”

According to Sac-Joaquin Section communications director Will DeBoard, feedback about the change in seasons has been mostly positive, including from foothill schools where winter weather can be the most problematic.

“Generally speaking, it seems like the players don’t mind, but the school administrators have found that their winter schedule has really filled up,” DeBoard wrote in an e-mail. “And the weather hasn’t been kind. Again, generally speaking, the foothill schools are fairly pleased with it. They’re getting large numbers of girls coming out for the sport.”

DeBoard said that the board of managers’ decision can be revisited.

“If the majority of our schools want to go back to what it was, that’s always possible,” he said.

Jesuit High School soccer coach Paul Rose talks about what keeps him going in his 38th year leading the Marauders after his team's 2-0 win over Christian Brothers on Dec. 7, 2016 at Jesuit.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP

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