PARADISE, Calif. (AP) — A Northern California high school football team has lost in a championship game one year after a deadly fire destroyed most of their town, including the homes of most players and coaches.
Paradise High School lost to Sutter Union High School 20-7 on Saturday night in the Northern Section Division III championship game. The game comes just over one year the fire in Paradise burned roughly 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people.
Paradise coach Rick Prinz told the team after the game he was proud of his players.
“I don’t want to see it end yet. They are keeping our town alive,” said Amber Blood, whose son Dylan plays on the team. “It feels like the town is alive when the games are happening. It feels like nothing has happened.”
Most of the people who lived in Paradise have moved away. But many have returned on Friday nights to watch the football team’s remarkable season.
The high school has a football tradition, consistently fielding competitive teams. The school produced Jeff Maehl, a wide receiver who played for the University of Oregon in the 2011 BCS national championship game and later played for two NFL teams.
Last year, the school was 8-2 and preparing to host a home playoff game when the wildfire swept through the town. The school survived, but nearly every player and coach on the team lost their homes. The team forfeited the playoff game, ending their season.
The team almost didn’t have a 2019 season. In January, Prinz had just 22 players left from what had been a 56-man roster. The school had relocated to an office building by an airport, and without a field to practice on the team ran plays on a gravel lot.
But the players were determined to play.
Erica Browe, 38, lost her home in the fire. She now lives in Redding. At first, her two teenage sons went to a new school. But she said they were miserable and their grades suffered. They now live in Paradise with some friends so they can attend their old high school and play football.
Returning to Paradise made a big difference in her sons’ lives, she said, and the team’s success encouraged the community nestled along a ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“It gives hope back to the ridge that we can still be strong and stick together,” she said.
Paradise High School finished the regular season undefeated, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 469-73. But their magical season ended Saturday on a rainy, cold night.
After Suzanne White and her family lost their home in the fire, they lived in a rented trailer on a walnut orchard for three months. They had no sewer system, so they used an outhouse and had to drive a quarter mile to use a shower.
White’s son, Blake, is the team’s starting center. She said the players and coaches know how much they mean to the town.
“They knew that they were holding paradise in their hands,” she said.