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Northern Section ‘mountain schools’ pushing for fall football season

Fall River High's football team beat Los Molinos in the 2019 Northern Section Division V championship game on a snowy field in McArthur. (FILE PHOTO-- Aaron Williams/Shasta County Sports)

Some Northern Section ‘mountain schools’ are constructing a plan for a fall football season despite restrictions across the state during the coronavirus pandemic.

The low-to-zero positive COVID-19 test results in the smaller mountain communities is one of the reasons why Fall River head football coach Todd Sloat is pushing for a fall season instead of shifting football to winter, which would align with the California Interscholastic Federation’s calendar released Monday.

“Trying to have a winter (football) season for the mountain region is a joke, especially for small schools,” Sloat said. He cited weather and playing-surface concerns which could lead to a higher rate of injuries and the possibilities of not fielding other sports teams due to the high amount of multi-sport athletes in school’s with small enrollment.

“What matters is our local population. We’re all well below the (state’s) watch list threshold in our communities. We would advocate our own watch list targets and triggers, develop our own strategies and it would fall in line and meet the intent of the state guidelines,” Sloat said.

The Northern Section is geographically the largest of the 10 CIF sections, spreading out across more than a dozen counties with the majority of member schools containing less than 300 students. Butte County, the section’s most populous with 217,769 residents, was added to the state’s COVID-19 watch list Wednesday, making it the sixth NSCIF county designated by the state. All the watch-list counties are from the southern part of the section, including Colusa, Glenn, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.

As of Saturday, those six counties account for 87.7 percent of the positive/active (past 14 days) COVID-19 cases in the Northern Section region and all 76 hospitalized patients, according to each counties public health departments and the state website.

Twenty-two of the 53 Northern Section schools (nearly 40 percent) which field a football team are located in communities at an elevation of at least 2,000 feet and all play on natural grass surface. Shasta County is home to two of those schools: Fall River (McArthur, 3,310 ft) and Burney (3,195 ft), which moved to 8-man football in 2019.

The Eastern Athletic League, the league comprised of the seven largest Northern Section schools in terms of enrollment, decided Friday to push football and volleyball to winter and align with the CIF calendar and attempt to continue individual sports in the fall. But each individual league is tasked with assessing its own capability to play.

With the northern counties clear of watch-list restrictions, Sloat believes it’s possible to adjust the Cascade Valley League schedule by dropping Biggs (Butte County), Los Molinos (Tehama County) and Maxwell (Colusa) to form a six-team league and “play a four or five-game schedule at the least.” That leaves Siskiyou County schools Etna and Weed, Plumas County schools Portola and Quincy, Modoc and Fall River to possibly play in the fall.

The plan might also be enticing to small-to-medium schools, including recent 8-man drop down squads.

“That’s our preference,” Sloat said. “There isn’t a guarantee we could even start in December and there’s no scientific evidence if COVID will be better or worse at that time. It’s an irrational decision that has been made and we’ll be faced with this in the winter time again.”

Playing outside of the CIF calendar means the champion of the revamped league would have to forgo regional (NorCal) competition. But Fall River opted out of the state playoffs last year to fill the basketball team, Sloat told Shasta County Sports in November.

Northern Section CIF commissioner Liz Kyle said the league facing the most challenges in terms of playing would be 8-man football due to the 17 teams being spread out across eight counties. The California Conference, which oversees 8-man football and is comprised of nearly all schools with less than 200 enrollment, plans to meet Monday to discuss plans on how to approach sports, Kyle said.

Burney head football coach Jedediah Tate isn’t a fan of moving seasons and doesn’t think his players will be either.

The section title game was played on a blanket of snow from storms earlier in the week. (Photo by Aaron Williams / Shasta County Sports)

“Winter is a whole new world,” Tate said. “The kids just want to play, they’ll (figuratively) die if they can’t.

“The quality of it will be interesting with the field. Usually the first week of November the ground is so hard we don’t like to tackle at practice. Pushing it back to January and February is going to make it like we’re playing on concrete.”

Sloat is no stranger to an inclement-weathered field. His squad won the NSCIF D-V title last season over Los Molinos on a snow-covered field and the Bulldogs won the 2015 NSCIF D-V championship on an icy field at Portola (4,856 ft) under then head coach Rick Neugebauer.

“The injury rate is high when you play in those conditions, we had a bunch of guys go down at Portola but last year we decided to not plow the field and that helped a little bit,” Sloat said.

“I can’t see us playing a home game if we’re in winter. Our field is typically covered in snow or ice the whole winter. We would have to reschedule games down in the valley (Redding-area) to play on a turf field. We’d have to practice in the gym and we only have one gym in town and that’s already loaded and maxed out on a regular day with youth sports all the way up to high school. Someone would get bumped because of football.”

Sloat said his team is continuing with training while following the safety guidelines from Shasta County officials and plans to issue gear Aug. 10. He is among many waiting for Shasta County and state health officials to release guidelines for youth sports.

“Until we see written guidelines from the state that says we can’t play in the fall then I’d like to play in the fall,” Sloat said. “If we can’t do that then we’ll petition to play in the spring and that should be a realistic possibility.

“This should be a reasonable strategy that folks will have to think about.”

Northern Section counties and COVID-19 cases (as of 7/25)

County New Cases (14 days) Cases per 100k Hospitalized ICU Population
Butte* 433 198.8 29 10 217,769
Colusa* 152 672.8 3 0 22,593
Glenn* 94 320.3 2 0 29,348
Lassen 26 891.4 0 0 30,065
Modoc 0 0 0 0 9,475
Plumas 10 52.6 0 0 18,997
Shasta 104 58.5 5 2 177,925
Sierra 0 0 0 0 3,115
Siskiyou 22 50.1 0 0 43,956
Sutter* 255 241.1 0 0 105,747
Tehama 63 95.6 0 0 65,885
Trinity 1 7.5 0 0 13,354
Yolo* 535 239.3 12 6 223,612
Yuba* 143 180.4 25 9 79,290
TOTAL 1,838 156.5 76 27 1,041,131
*County on California COVID-19 Watch List

Football schools above 2,000 foot elevation

Team Division Elevation (ft)
Big Valley 6 4,124
Burney 6 3,195
Butte Valley 6 4,245
Chester 6 4,534
Dunsmuir 6 2,290
Etna 5 2,936
Fall River 5 3,310
Greenville 6 3,586
Hayfork 6 2310
Herlong 6 4,114
Lassen 3 4,186
Loyalton 6 4,951
McCloud 6 3,271
Modoc 5 4,370
Mt. Shasta 4 3,586
Portola 5 4,856
Quincy 5 3,432
Trinity 4 2,051
Tulelake 6 4,035
Weed 5 3,425
Westwood 6 5,128
Yreka 3 2,589

T.J. is a national-award winning journalist passionate about local news and telling the story no one else knows about. He’s roamed sidelines, baselines and bleachers in the North State since 2010 and is a content producer from sunup to sundown. Sports are a hobby he shares with his wife Tracy where they’ve spent many dates around a field or court of some sort.

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