California high school competes for title after deadly fire

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A Northern California high school football team will play for a championship Saturday one year after most of the players and coaches lost their homes to a wildfire that nearly destroyed their town.

Paradise High School will face Sutter Union High School for the Northern Section Division III championship. The game comes just over a year after the Camp Fire mostly destroyed the town of Paradise, burning down roughly 19,000 buildings and killing 85 people.

Most of the people who lived in Paradise have moved away. But many have returned on Friday nights to watch the football team’s remarkable season.

“The football team has come to represent all of us,” Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said. “There is not a whole lot that gets emotional about this whole fire. But I have to tell you, every time I have to tell someone who is not from Paradise the story of our football team, I start crying.”

Paradise High School has a football tradition, consistently fielding competitive teams. The school produced Jeff Maehl, a wide receiver who played for the University of Oregon in the 2011 BCS national championship game and later played for two NFL teams.

Last year, the school was 8-2 and preparing to host a home playoff game when the wildfire swept through the town. The school survived, but nearly every player and coach on the team lost their homes. The team forfeited the playoff game, ending their season.

The team almost didn’t have a 2019 season. In January, coach Rick Prinz had just 22 players left from what had been a 56-man roster. The school had relocated to an office building by an airport, and without a field to practice on the team ran plays on a gravel lot.

But the players were determined to play.

“They are living with their grandparents or friends, some of them are separated from their parents, they travel long distances just to go to high school and football practice,” Jones said.

Athletic Director Anne Stearns cobbled together a schedule of mostly smaller schools. No one knew how the team would perform heading into its first game. They won 42-0.

For the next nine weeks, Paradise would outscore their opponents by a combined score of 427-73.

If they win Saturday, they would likely compete for a state title.

“I talk about the people who are staying and rebuilding in Paradise as pioneers, but I see these kids the same way,” Jones said. “They are just so resilient and persistent and strong. It inspires me.”

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