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The Art of the Battle : Paintball combat at an Azusa ranch is good, not-so-clean fun for weekend warriors.

July 21, 1994|KEVIN UHRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Matt Valcore had staked out his spot behind a large rock along the perimeter of The Jungle, a 10-acre avocado grove that has been converted into one of 14 battlefields on a 165-acre ranch in Azusa.

Dressed in combat fatigues, his face covered by goggles and armed with an air-powered rifle capable of firing marble-sized balls of paint at speeds of 285 feet per second, Valcore had found a prime position. He could also see that most of his teammates had been shot and knocked out of the game. And the "enemy" was zeroing in. In seconds, hundreds of colorful plastic paintballs started exploding off the rock Valcore was hiding behind.

Sensing a brief lull in the shooting, Valcore lifted his head and peaked over the rim of the rock.

PLAP! A bright orange splotch of watercolor paint, about the diameter of a half-dollar, fanned across the exposed part of Valcore's forehead. "That one hurt," said the 25-year-old Rancho Cucamonga man, taking his place in the "dead zone" with the rest of that battle's casualties.

"The fun part is you can always go back and die again," offered dead enemy Eduardo Monge, a 42-year-old Amtrak administrator from Whittier.

"Reincarnation is wonderful," agreed paintball warrior Gary Hoopfer, 49, of Cerritos, as he and the others moved on to the next round.

Possibly no one playing paintball at Ralph Covell's ranch one weekend earlier this month could appreciate a comment like that more than Covell himself. After winning a four-month battle with Azusa City Hall to keep the paintball operation open, Covell hopes paintball battles like the recent ones will generate renewed interest in his California Paintball Ranch in San Gabriel Canyon.

An estimated 1 million people in the United States play paintball, suiting up in camouflage gear, strapping on goggles and protective headgear, arming themselves with paint guns and, after a brief safety training talk, heading out on "missions." Sometimes the mission involves teamwork to capture the flag. Sometimes the mission is simply to eliminate players from the opposing team.

At all times players must keep their protective eye gear on. One hit and you're out--though you can be reborn later. Referees roam the field to enforce the rules and call players out. Other than that, it's all-out war when the whistle blows and play begins.

"Think of it as going out to shoot rabbits and the rabbits shoot back," said Jay Livingston of Monrovia. During the week, Livingston works construction. He's been playing paintball for about eight years and on the weekends helps Covell out with renting equipment and refereeing games.

"It's an excellent use of the land," said Covell, who is possibly better known for being the biggest breeder of Clydesdale horses in the western United States. "The most profitable thing I could do with the land is rock quarry it or build houses. But this leaves the land in a natural state. The paint is biodegradable and it's great action. I have yet to have someone tell me they have come up here and say they didn't have a fantastically good time."

Covell said he first got the idea for using part of the ranch for paintball battles 12 years ago. At the time, little was known about the sport and attorneys advised him the liability was too great. Today, paintball is played around the world and is among the faster-growing sports in the United States.

With a $20,000 investment, used mostly to buy rifles and goggles, Covell first opened the ranch for weekend paintball games in September. He has guests sign a waiver, although he also has insurance that costs him $4,000 a year. With a stable of 57 Clydesdale horses and ponies serving as a backdrop, the simulated urban and jungle war zone settings quickly became a hit with paintball enthusiasts across the country.

Besides "The Jungle," there's also "Dodge City," 40 wood-framed buildings set up in a fenced acre near the stables. The "OK Corral" is a collection of power line reels, oil drums and pallets, perfect for team play. Then there's the "Gotcha" field, where it's kill or be killed. Players go one-on-one in a 50-foot-by-80-foot enclosed field dotted with upright plywood planks to hide behind.

The ranch has attracted a diverse range of paintball buffs: corporate executives, staff from the county district attorney's office, construction workers and police officers. Even doctors and lawyers have come to practice team-building techniques or just blow off some steam. The ranch has been booked solid on weekends since March.

"It's more than just interesting. It's a good release from the hospital. It gets your mind off the everyday routine," said longtime paintball player Lauren Lewan, an emergency room chart clerk at Pomona Valley Hospital.

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