Sports

Sun-Star spotlight: Mariposa football team

Bob Kelly considers himself lucky -- one of the few in combustible Mariposa County these days. The first-year football coach at Mariposa High watched as the Telegraph Fire -- one of the worst this season throughout the state -- ripped through the brush near his home last week.

It crept to within two miles of his property line along Highway 140 near Midpines.

The scene from his back deck was eerie. The afternoon sky had been painted black with smoke, while the thwack-thwack of helicopters and the wail of fire engines could be heard for hours.

Mariposa's football players and coaches -- like all residents -- have had to deal with fallout from the blaze.

Besides the danger to life and property, the fire's aftermath has created even more hassles for athletes trying to get fit for their sport.

But neither coach nor team will use the fire as an excuse -- or as false inspiration.

THE TURNOUT in front of Kelly's home on Whitlock Road was converted to a base camp of sorts -- a rallying point for thousands of firefighters, from places near and far, to recover.

"The sun looked like a stoplight," Kelly said of his Sunday afternoon scenery. "I hadn't seen something like that since a wildfire in Santa Cruz 25 years ago. That's when I knew it was bad ... that things were pretty serious."

Knock, knock, knock...

Local authorities acted quickly, insisting that Kelly and his family grab what belongings they could and evacuate the dwelling.

That was the morning of Monday, July 28.

They weren't in immediate danger, but they were advised to act as if they were.

The same warnings were being delivered in potential hot zones all across the county.

Kelly didn't waste time.

He loaded large family heirlooms onto a flatbed truck and stored precious photos -- like an Ansel Adams shot of Yosemite Valley, the very place he proposed to his wife -- into his car.

"They told us we should get out," said Kelly, who has two infant children, ages 3 and 1. "A sheriff came by at 2 in the morning and then came back again a little bit later.

"He said, 'When we come back, you better be ready to go. Adults can stay, but the kids will have to leave.'"

Fortunately, it never came to that.

The fire was eventually contained, and before long, Kelly was given clearance to unpack his belongings.

That was Wednesday.

"The danger was never imminent," Kelly said in a tone equal parts amazement and relief. "Mainly, it was just a big inconvenience. It wasn't like what other people had to go through -- people who lost their homes."

Telegraph has left more than 34,000 acres in smoldering ash, cost an estimated $35 million in firefighting efforts and claimed as many as 54 homes and outbuildings.

And though Cal Fire reports that they've reached 95-percent containment -- signifying to many that the blaze is finally under control -- folks around Mariposa County will be answering to the flames' fury for years to come.

"We have fires up here quite a bit. This just happens to be a bigger one than we're used to," said former Mariposa football coach JC McNally, who spent the weekend helping his longtime assistant and local cabinet maker Alan Dayhoff evacuate his home on Whitlock Road.

"It was weird. You could feel the heat -- and we were a mile away. I know that it sounds crazy, but you could feel the heat radiating. And you could hear it, too. It was spooky the way it was just roaring."

SPIRIT SURVIVES

The Mariposa football team is just a snapshot of the current plight around Mariposa County.

Players and coaches have been displaced and a few others trapped or cut off by road closures and power outages, but...

Life must go on, Kelly said.

That spirit was evident last Wednesday in the weight room on campus.

The energy was muted, naturally, but most of Kelly's players showed up to get in a light workout -- some wearing outfits plucked from the backseat of their cars.

Garrett Simpson turned up in flip-flops because, well, that's all he could find.

"Coach, you want to go digging through my car looking for my shoes?" the junior offensive lineman asked.

"No," Kelly told him. "I understand."

When Simpson, who lives in Midpines, was told to evacuate, he was given 30 minutes to pack his mother's Ford Focus with what he could.

In went his clothes, a small stash of cash, and of course, his Xbox 360. "I couldn't leave that behind," Simpson said with a sly smile. "Are you kidding me?"

He spent the next five days living out of friend Cody Westbrook's home, while fire crews worked to save his family's home.

Football proved to be his only outlet.

"It was tough not to focus on what was going on at the moment," Simpson said. "All I had was the weight room. It let me see my friends. It was the only thing I could do because of the fire."

Kelly is careful, though.

The football coach in him -- the one who roamed sidelines for years in parts of the Bay Area -- would love to stomp around the weight room like an oversized cheerleader, filling the air with timeless football cliches and rah-rah sermons.

But he can't.

Not right now.

He understands that for many of his kids, the wounds are fresh and that the healing process could take weeks.

Or months.

To use the fire as a motivational tool for his football team, he says, would be "absolutely disrespectful."

"We're talking about people whose lives have been turned upside down. To try to use it as a galvanizing force would trivialize the fire and how it's affected them," Kelly said.

FRIDAY NIGHTS

Moving forward will be hard.

Mariposa opens the season Sept. 12 at home against Truckee.

That means Kelly, Dayhoff and the rest of the Mariposa coaching staff have mere weeks to prepare their embattled bunch -- both physically and mentally.

"Right out of the chute," Kelly says, "it's going to be tough on us."

McNally believes Kelly has the group to pull it off.

For years, McNally has been awestruck by the strength and dedication shown by Mariposa's student-athletes.

They are warriors, in every sense of the word.

"We're very fortunate up here. We have some really great kids and great parents who support what we do," said McNally, who stepped down as varsity head coach after going 7-3 in 2007.

"The kids, they're mentally tough. For them to just go to the weight room, it's a half-hour drive. It's not like in Denair, where (the campus is) right down the street. We have kids who live all over the county.

"To get there is a huge sacrifice. As a coach, you always wish you had more kids like that, but it's pretty good to see the turnout that they're having right now.

"Of us all, the kids seem to be the more resilient. They'll bounce back. They'll be fine."

Again, Kelly counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

If a few summer blazes couldn't turn their spirit to ashes, what could possibly slow them down in the fall?

Truckee? Orestimba? Le Grand?

"I'm ready right now," senior Will Williams said. "Every one thinks we're going to lose to (Truckee). They might be a bigger school with more kids, but we've got more heart than they do.

"We'll be ready for them."

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