Football team brings joy and hope to community destroyed by Camp Fire.
The story of the 2019 Paradise (Calif.)
high school football team only gets better. And more dramatic.
Coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in state history and the country's deadliest in 100 years, the Bobcats are 9-0, outscoring opponents 421-47, and appear hell-bent to achieve their ultimate goal, a state championship.
"Now that we feel better about ourselves and our situation, we are gonna buckle down in the playoffs and put the whole town back on us," said offensive line coach Andy Hopper on Tuesday.
The team vowed to make a championship run before the season after the Nov. 8 fire stopped the 2018 campaign in its tracks.
Like the town of nearly 27,000 residents itself, the Bobcats started basically from scratch without even a football to practice with in the spring, going from 22 players to 39 by the start of the 2019 season.
The home opener in August drew throngs of national media and a record crowd of more than 5,000. The prep football game served as a revival for the devastated town's first rallying point since the nightmarish events 10 months earlier that took 85 lives and more than 18,000 structures.
The Bobcats, riding an emotional high, rolled over an over-matched Williams squad 42-0 in that opener, but the real test would come the following weeks after the vast attention from the media and town folk waned.
Indeed, the following game, at previous Northern California champion East Nicholas, the Bobcats barely pulled out a 35-28 victory. Since then, however, no team has come within three touchdowns of Paradise, and the last six weeks the scores have been downright lopsided: 49-0, 47-6, 47-0, 57-0, 57-0, 59-7.
Paradise head coach Rick Prinz told Los Angeles Times
columnist Bill Plaschke after a 57-0 Homecoming win over Willows on Oct. 18: "We're on a mission."
Utilizing its famed Wing-T offense that helped produce 10 league titles and 174 wins in 20 seasons under Prinz, the Bobcats average a whopping 426 rushing yards per game (448 total yards per game) — which ranks third in the state and ninth nationally. Tyler Harrison
, a rugged 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore, leads the way with 1,535 rushing yards (14.0 per carry) and 18 touchdowns, and speedy 6-1, 195-pound senior Lukas Hartley
has added 1,004 yards (95 average) and 15 scores.
Despite the lopsided scores, the Paradise players and coaching staff continue to overcome the unspeakable tragedy. All but a few lost their homes in the blaze and all their possessions. The emotional scars and nightmares from the event — the entire city was scorched away in about four hours — are still fresh.
Only three of the varsity players even live in town, the rest commuting up to 90 minutes away as the city rebuilds. The disarray has led to unfurled anger when the players take the practice and playing fields.
"Everybody has lost so much, you grab what you have left, which is football," Hartley told Plaschke. "You try to get to the finish line as fast as you can."
Beyond the lingering after effects, the team's emotional pulse, Hopper, missed five games due to a cardiac condition — an aortic dissection — that required three surgeries, a couple airlifts to a Reno hospital and one doctor telling him that he wasn't going to make it.
As if the Bobcats weren't dealing with enough, to lose this 370-pound mountain of a man who carries an equally large influence on the squad, even for a practice, was monumental.
Hopper, who like 90 percent of the program lost everything in the fire, said he was motivated to heal not only for his immediate family, but for the Bobcats.
"Though I'm not 100 percent, it was very important to my soul that I bounce back quickly," he said. "I wanted to show my players and community that I am not all talk and follow the beliefs and encouraging message of strength. I wanted to show that we are all in this together, and nothing, not a fire or lack of health can hold us back."
Hopper said his time away from the team was anxious, but he was able to focus on his own health.
"I came back expecting to fix some things, but offensively they were a well-oiled machine," he said. "All I had to do was bring the reason to work hard again.
"My message for 10 weeks of the season has been to have fun, heal and play football. And I really feel like our boys were able to do that. They gained confidence and started enjoying their situation more.
"We have always prided ourselves as the team that never had much, so it was good and empowering that we embraced our situation that most of us didn't even have homes. It put pride in us that we were all going through it together and maybe felt like it wasn't so awful."
Of course, there is no denying it was and is still awful. Hartley told Plaschke that "a dream season for me would be, at the end of the day, I get to go to my old home."
Unfortunately and unfairly, that won't be the case. Hopper has another alternative, which includes a victory Friday against winless Enterprise (Redding), three Division III Northern Section playoff wins, and finally two CIF bowl-game victories.
"We can end this incredible story with a good season, or we can do everything in our ability and power and complete this season into the amazing state championship season that it deserves," he said. "We can play for our town, the 85 souls that lost their lives, and the continued hope and belief that with each other we can conquer all odds.
"That's the story I want to see. It's up to us to make it so."