At last year’s Sac-Joaquin Section realignment meetings, the lines for and against the move of Sonora High into the Mother Lode League for all sports were clearly and unmistakably drawn.
Sonora was in favor of the move; the rest of the Mother Lode League was against it.
But despite the outcry of the incumbent membership, the decision was made to move the Wildcats in with the other Gold Country schools. So now the question for the returning MLL membership as they enter the first football season becomes, “What to do about Sonora?”
The answer is clear. Since the Wildcats are in the league, you have to prepare to do your best against them, even though the informal poll of MLL coaches made Sonora the overwhelming favorite to claim the league title.
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“I like challenges,” said first-year Argonaut head coach Gary Landergen, the school’s wrestling coach and a football assistant to Rick Davis since 2001. “My team will never go into a game knowing that another team can beat them. We're going into every game to win.
“But it does add a new challenge. The last few years, the measuring stick was Calaveras, and now you’re throwing in another school twice our size. In the short term, everybody will step up. In the long term, it will be something different.”
There’s no question that in adding a football program that’s used to competing at the level of the Valley Oak League, the MLL becomes a deeper and stronger conference. But that’s not exactly welcoming news to programs like Linden and Bret Harte, who have faced recent annual struggles to finish above .500 against the pre-Sonora membership.
“It’s an upgrade for sure,” said Linden coach Mark Miller. “You now have three traditional power schools in Argonaut, Sonora and Calaveras. This changes the culture of the league a little bit. Before this year, us playing Sonora would have been a real nonleague measuring stick game, and now it’s going to be standard operating procedure.”
There is a clause in the realignment decision that will call for the committee to watch the results of Sonora’s move. After two years of membership, if the Wildcats are deemed to be dominating the MLL in multiple sports, they could be shifted to another conference.
“I’m big on competitive equity, and I’m not going to cry foul,” said Jon Byrnes, the second-year head coach at Bret Harte. “Riverbank was struggling in the TVL, and I applaud their decision to go independent, since it’s right for their program. For us, it will be good for the competitive level of the MLL that Sonora is in, but it creates an imbalance for the foreseeable future.”
And don’t discount the impact this move will have on sports at Sonora. Because every school prepares to face the level of play in its own league, the Wildcats’ own competitive bar has been lowered. As the current players who have met the challenge of playing in the VOL move along, their ranks will be filled by young athletes for whom winning the MLL becomes the goal.
“I know that it eventually will bring down the level, and I don't know the level of football I'm going to see,” said Sonora coach Bryan Craig, whose team dropped a 13-7 decision last season at Calaveras. but rebounded to go 4-3 with a very young team in the VOL.
“To guard against that, I went out and put together a really good preseason, with Oakdale, Hilmar and Ripon. We don’t put easy wins in there. The ultimate goal is to get to the section title game and maybe have a shot at state.”
No school will feel this addition more than Summerville. The Bears not only share a high school district with Sonora, but it’s one with historically liberal transfer policies. As such, Summerville coach Ben Watson fears having to recruit players from his own district to play for him instead of for Sonora, his alma mater.
“In the future, kids are going to start to be asked to choose what school they want to go to at an earlier age,” Watson said. “There have been athletes in the past who would have gone to Summerville who wanted to play at a bigger level and a bigger league so they went to Sonora. At the same time, if you wanted a chance to play at a smaller school, you went to Summerville.
“My fear is that Sonora gets stronger athletically from this, so kids might just choose to go there because they have to play against them anyway. We have to promote our schools in a way we didn’t have to do before. You also have a David and Goliath within our county and in the same league, and that’s never happened before.”
And in a couple years, as the the section re-examines its decision to send Sonora to a smaller league, there might be another larger school moving into the MLL. The possible merger of Argonaut and Amador would create a third school with enrollment to rival Sonora and Calaveras, creating an even wider have and have-not chasm between athletic talent pools within the MLL.
“I will be very interested to see what happened to Bret Harte, Summerville and Linden with the possible combination of Amador and Argonaut,” said Byrnes. “What will happen to the rest of us then?”