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In areas where California wildfires left homes and school facilities in ashes, football provided a welcome distraction
WHEN THE call for voluntary evacuations in northern San Diego County went out on Oct. 21 because of spreading wildfires, San Pasqual Academy ( Escondido) coach Bob Manning didn't panic. He was just as calm 20 minutes later when he received the order for mandatory evacuations. "I honestly believed we'd be back in a day or two," says Manning, who along with his wife, Jo Anne, lived in a house on campus. "When I came back five days later, all I saw was ash. The entire house was gone except for the chimney."
The Witch Creek blaze charred nearly 370,000 acres in the county and destroyed or significantly damaged 31 of the 40 residences on the academy's 238-acre campus, home to one of the nation's first boarding schools for foster teens. (Student dorms and academic buildings suffered insignificant smoke damage.)
At the time of the evacuation, San Pasqual's 136 students were told to take enough clothes for three days. They were moved to a campground 20 miles northwest, in Vista, where they lived in log cabins without cable television and Internet service. But three days turned into two weeks before the school reopened on Monday.
While at the campground, the eight-man football team, which plays in the six-team Citrus League, got in three days of practice on a small, dirt field before facing Borrego Springs in the county semifinals last Friday night. But any concerns about the players' focus were allayed in their first workout. "The guys were biting at the bit to do something normal again," says Manning, "and [football] was it."
"It's like going home," senior quarterback Josh Collazo says of returning to the field. "We're out here evacuated, and all we want to do is play football."
It showed in the Dragons' 56--20 victory over Borrego Springs, which earned San Pasqual (6--2) a fourth consecutive trip to the title game. (It's won the past two.) The players dedicated the win to Manning. "Our coach lost his home, and it's been hard," said Collazo, who threw for two touchdowns and intercepted a pass. "He lost everything, and his first concern was us. That meant a lot to everybody."
The suffering wasn't limited to San Pasqual. In the Poway and Rancho Bernardo areas, at least 400 families reportedly lost their homes, including Poway High tight end Ryan Deehan, who has received scholarship offers from more than 20 schools including Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon. The town of Ramona was evacuated and citizens, including Ramona High coach Damon Baldwin, were displaced for five days.
After high school sports were canceled throughout San Diego County the previous week because of the fires, Ramona rescheduled its homecoming for last Friday night. "The place was packed," Baldwin said, after the Division III Bulldogs' 42--7 victory over Orange Glen ( Escondido). "I knew we were going to have a big crowd, but there was standing room only on the sides of our home stands. It was an electrifying place, and the kids played great. It was the culmination of an emotional week."