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When Game Plan Changes

Fires force high school teams out of their routines, resulting in midweek games at neutral sites.

October 29, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

The football teams from Rancho Cucamonga and Claremont high schools played a game Tuesday night that was, at once, unremarkable yet quite remarkable.

Coaches barked instruction, fans shouted encouragement and players ran and hit as hard as they could.

Business as usual.

Which was the remarkable part.

In the last few days, players and coaches from both schools have struggled to regain any type of normality in the wake of firestorms that have turned their gymnasiums into evacuation centers.

The football game -- one that might very well have decided the next champion of the Baseline League -- was a big step in returning to a more typical routine.

Claremont won the game, 21-20, in three overtimes, but the result, to many, wasn't nearly as important as the process.

"It is important for students to return to their regular routines after such a traumatic event," said Christine Gallegos, Rancho Cucamonga's school psychologist. "... When they're able to come back to school and continue the things they usually do, it gives them more of a sense of security."

Not that life is entirely back to normal for the students, athletes, teachers and coaches from schools in the Baseline League.

Rancho Cucamonga was playing a "home game" 35 miles away from home, at San Marino High. Two other league football games between schools close to the fire lines were played Tuesday at La Puente Bishop Amat, where Etiwanda defeated Alta Loma, 28-0, in the afternoon and Upland downed Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos, 45-14, at night.

None of the campuses were thought to be in the path of fire, but unhealthful air quality forced school officials to seek alternative playing sites.

The Rancho Cucamonga-Claremont game was originally scheduled to be played at Los Osos last Friday, when what became known as the Grand Prix fire was at its worst.

The families of many students who live in the foothills north of the Rancho Cucamonga campus were forced to evacuate their homes, including those of players Travis Plotkin and Bobby Redondo.

Plotkin said his family was told to move out in the early-morning hours, and by the time they had gathered a few valuables, flames were scaling a nearby ridge.

"I ran to my car," the lineman recalled Tuesday. "I had to keep stopping to get the burning ash out of my eyes. It was a pretty scary thing."

Yet, after the family quickly resettled in a relative's home in nearby Alta Loma, Plotkin returned to campus, assisting other displaced families over the weekend as they arrived at an evacuation center that had been set up in the Rancho Cucamonga gymnasium.

Plotkin said he got only a few hours of sleep each night, yet on Tuesday said he was so pumped up for football that he would play the game even if he had to do it with a surgical mask covering the facemask of his helmet.

Rancho Cucamonga Coach Chris Van Duin, who pulls double duty as the school's athletic director, was ready for the game too. He was at school early Tuesday morning in what had become a familiar pose: Receiver of his desk phone tucked between his chin and right shoulder, cell phone in his left hand, talking constantly into both.

"I don't have my walkie-talkie, or that would be going too," he said, laughing.

As athletic director, he was organizing changes with transportation, scheduling and officials for the school's other fall sports.

And football was enough of a moving target. He first thought about moving the Claremont game east, toward San Bernardino, then south to the Temecula area, but fires flared in both those areas, too. Next stop was Montclair High on Monday, but that didn't work, either.

Rancho Cucamonga was closed on Monday, but Van Duin was there, working the phones, organizing, reorganizing, and trying to get his own 55-player team together for a practice indoors.

"The hard part is, once a decision is made, trying to notify all the people who are affected," he said.

A couple of players never received word about the Monday walk-through and were afraid they would be held to a team rule that any player who misses practice doesn't play in the next game.

Van Duin issued several free passes around that regulation. Rancho Cucamonga played Tuesday having not had a full, on-field practice in a week.

Claremont hadn't practiced since the previous Wednesday, although that campus was never entirely closed.

While Rancho Cucamonga was hit hardest by fire on Friday, Claremont became a front line on Saturday, as flames driven by 80-mph winds scorched hillsides on the north side of town, destroying some 65 homes.

The school was an evacuation center Monday and Tuesday and Coach Mike Collins was concerned that citizens would worry the team's priorities were not in order.

"We just want to make sure that our community knows that we're not placing football above families and homes," he said, "because our community took a big hit."

Across the field were two men -- opposing coaches of Collins' -- who know well the hardship many are suffering.

Dennis Hanvy, Rancho Cucamonga's defensive line coach, was at school going over film on Saturday when he learned, through news reports, that his neighborhood in Crestline was being evacuated. He and his wife were able to collect a few valuables and their cats and have been staying at their son's home in Redlands. He doesn't know about the condition of his home.

Defensive back coach Doug Smith is in a similar situation, not knowing about a vacation home his family owns in Lake Arrowhead.

"I keep calling our telephone number," Hamby said before the game, "and it keeps ringing, so hopefully that's a good sign."

He planned to keep calling after the game, hoping for what he wasn't sure.

In the meantime, though, there was a game to be played, the hint of an old routine.

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