The way the wildfires affected sports in the North Bay was hardly important to those who lost loved ones, homes, schools and jobs.
Even for athletes who weren’t affected so directly, it created chaos with practice and game schedules, forcing them to be canceled or rescheduled.
The Napa Valley College men’s soccer team was 6-3 overall and 2-0 in Bay Valley Conference play when the fires began, and the momentum of a very promising season was threatened by two weeks of having practices and games nixed due to poor air quality.
The fires were more than an annoyance for the Storm when the team’s two Calistoga High graduates, Mariano Guzman and Rigo Avina, were evacuated to the NVC gym with many of their Upvalley town’s other residents.
But since their season started back up on Oct. 20, the Storm had upped their BVC record to 7-1 and overall mark to 11-5 and were alone in first place heading into Wednesday’s first meeting of the season with second-place Contra Costa (6-1-1 BVC) in San Pablo.
The teams are also scheduled to play at NVC at 12 p.m. Friday, A win over the Comets in either game would secure Napa Valley both the conference crown and a state playoff berth. With Friday being Sophomore Day, the team’s only second-year players – 2015 American Canyon High graduate and starting goalkeeper Edwin Martinez and Vallejo High alum Marco Gomez – would love to wrap up it up on Wednesday and have their big day be less stressful.
“The first week (of the fires), we all kept in contact because our guys from Calistoga and were here at the shelter, and some of us who live close to Alston Park were really close to it,” said Storm co-captain Gary Tovar, 24. “Dom (DeBenedetti), who lives in Atlas Peak, was at risk of losing his house, and the guys from outside (the area) reached out and made sure we were OK. Some of us got together and came to volunteer here.”
Tovar, a 2010 Napa High graduate, said most of the team was able to train together at Mare Island Sports Complex in Vallejo.
“We had a couple of days where we regrouped, had a dialogue and started to build back on what we were previously working on,” he said. “If anything, that tragedy kind of brought us together. It cemented us more as a group and we were able to get over that hurdle and become a cohesive unit, so it was a blessing in disguise.
“That’s what sports do, they have a way of bringing everyone together and forming a bond that stretches beyond the field. We’ll care about each other for the rest of our lives.”
First-year Storm head coach Rogelio Ochoa got all of the healthy players on his 22-man roster into Monday’s 4-0 home win over fourth-place Yuba, a dangerous team that had handed Napa Valley its only BVC loss on Friday in Yuba County, 4-2. Ochoa was pleased with the win, even though a couple of the 49ers’ better players didn’t make the trip.
Rodriguez High alum Julian Smith scored twice and Napa High products Enrique Polio and DeBenedetti each added one goal for the Storm, while Martinez and Mchombo Yamikani of American Canyon pitched a shutout in goal.
The team has players from 11 different high schools.
Rounding out the Storm are Napa High graduates Jose Perez, Cesar Gutierrez, Juan Casillas, Jake Lustig and Kenny Jaramillo; Vintage High products Jasiel Sanchez and Daniel Vargaz; Justin-Siena graduate Brandon Hernandez; New Tech alum Danny Gonzalez; St. Helena grad David Jimenez; Bethel alum Francisco Jimenez; Armijo grads Christian Diaz and Carlos Perez, and Vallejo High alum Marco Gomez.
Ochoa likes that there is no one player, nor two or three, that carry the scoring.
“We have four or five players (leading the team) with three or four goals,” the coach said. “No one’s really standing out, which is a good thing.”
Ochoa, who is assisted by coaches Rafael Ayala and Raul Gallegos, has had only one player quit during the course of the season.
“They’ve been committed this year, definitely,” he said. “It’s my first year here and I just want to create that culture and it’s rubbing off. It’s rubbing off also in the results. We’ve reconnected (since the fires) and we’ve been good. Everyone’s competed. We’re in good position now, we’re one win away, but we’ve got to work.”
Ochoa, also a teacher and boys soccer head coach at Napa High, has always stressed academics over soccer – which might be a reason Tovar came back to the game after six years away from organized soccer.
The Storm also have a few players who have tried NCAA Division II soccer, such as Smith (Chico State) and Lustig (Stanislaus State).
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for them, but at least they stuck with it and came back home to keep trying,” Tovar said.
Seeing all that talent when he came out for the first practice, Tovar sensed this kind of week was coming.
“Everyone’s really gifted in their own way. All that was needed was for us to kinda mesh and build that team chemistry and that bond,” he said. “From the beginning, there was this sort of buzz, that this was going to be something. You just kind of felt it and you wanted to be a part of it.”
He’s also proud that all of the players are from the Napa Valley or the teams they played in high school.
Now the Storm have a chance to win their first NVC title since the 2013 season.
“We want to go out there and bring back that pennant and put Napa on the map,” he said.