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Up From the Ashes

After fires, a school's athletes wait for games and thank good fortune

November 07, 2003|Mike Hiserman | Times Staff Writer

They were supposed to play tonight for a league championship, on their field, before a raucous hometown crowd, hoping to end a streak of futility against an opponent that has dominated them in recent years.

Instead, members of the Rim of the World High football team will wait until Saturday to play at a stadium a one-hour drive away, hoping that their fans might delay more pressing needs to make the trip.

But they are ever so thankful. They are thankful they are safe, that their families are safe, that their homes are standing, that their season -- the one that had been going according to dream -- wasn't choked by a fire that ravaged so many things familiar.

Rim of the World is on Highway 18 in Lake Arrowhead, overlooking the rugged and normally picturesque San Bernardino Mountains -- terrain that is now scorched hillside speckled with charcoal-colored brush and the skeletons of broken, burned-out trees.

The school, a collection of taupe stucco buildings with blue trim and a two-story mural welcoming visitors to "The Home of the Fighting Scots," was saved by backfires controlled by firefighters who made a stand at the two-lane highway in front of the campus.

Rim athletes were among many displaced locals who watched the firefighting on television, from evacuation centers, motels, faraway campsites and the homes of close (and not-so-close) relatives.

"You start seeing buildings that you recognize, and streets and signs and billboards, and you're like, 'Wow ...' It's like it's not even real," said Morgan Ruffin, the football team's quarterback.

"You worry about your house and your friends and their houses ..."

And, when you're a teenager and a member of a team that has championship aspirations, you worry about something else:

If the school goes, does our season go with it?

*

Before the fire, Rim of the World's fall sports teams were enjoying unprecedented success.

The football team was undefeated, having allowed only 31 points in seven games. The girls' tennis team had a perfect record too. The girls' volleyball team had one loss, but none in Mojave River League play, and the boys' and girls' cross-country teams also led the standings.

"There's never been another year like this one," said Dave Ochs, Rim's athletic director. "This was the most successful fall in school history ... and now this."

Ochs knows the tumult as well as anyone, having evacuated his home and been forced to run the affairs of the school's athletic department the last two weeks while roving from parking lot to parking lot in his family RV.

"The campgrounds are all closed, so I've been like a vagabond," he said. "I've been to Lowe's, Home Depot, Wal-Mart ... Find me a store with a [utility] plug and I'm there."

He laughs, but he knows the situation isn't funny for many of his neighbors on the mountain. People died in several recent fires; others are missing. Homes and valuables and jobs have been lost.

Rim's varsity athletes and coaches know they are among the fortunate. Their family members and homes all survived, which is why they speak in hushed tones when talking about the challenges they face in the coming weeks.

Their school won't reopen until Nov. 17, and they were scared, yes. They are inconvenienced still, even though the fires haven't been a threat for more than a week. But they can afford to move on to matters less important than life and death, but which are priorities to them. Too much work has been invested in their sports seasons to stay distracted for long.

There are playoff games on the horizon, league championships for which to compete.

"I want to get back to volleyball," Rim Coach Linda Pattison said, "but you wonder, 'Is it OK? Is it appropriate? How important is this?'

"You try to strike a balance. There's something to be said for trying to get back to a normal life."

For now, though, not much is routine. Pattison herself was displaced for more than a week, moving from Big Bear to Victorville to San Bernardino and to another location near hers in Lake Arrowhead before she returned home on Monday. Her team -- half of it anyway -- held a makeshift practice that same day. The next day, they practiced again, this time with their own volleyballs and Shannon Moody back at right side hitter. She had flown in from Sacramento earlier in the day.

On Wednesday, the team played Hesperia Sultana and suffered its first league loss, in four games. Earlier in the season, Rim had defeated Sultana in three games in a row.

In the rematch, Rim won the first game, then lost the rest. "They just didn't have their legs," Pattison said of her players. "You could see it, their bodies just gave out."

*

The nucleus of Rim's football team is a group of seniors that has been playing together since the third grade. A group of "mess-around guys ... in a good way," said one of the ringleaders, inside linebacker Mark Meng.

In youth leagues over the years, the team had a record of 35-1, and in one season it outscored its opponents, 299-13.

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