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MIDDLETOWN — The woman taking tickets. The fan juggling his young boys near the snack bar. The principal roaming the stands. The rodeo queen who circled the field on horseback before the game. The cheerleading coach and seven of her 21 cheerleaders. The running back.

They all lost their homes in the Valley fire. They all showed up Friday night.

They were at Middletown High School to urge on the Mustangs football team against the visiting Fort Bragg Timberwolves — a squad that rolled onto Bill Foltmer Field with an undefeated record and a nearly unstoppable offense.

And still the Mustangs stopped them. For three quarters they held the Timberwolves to one touchdown. And then they couldn’t hold them anymore. The final score read, Visitors: 28, Home: 14.

But this isn’t about the score. It’s not even really about the game.

“We get to come do something fun,” Erika Galvan said as she took tickets for a long line of purple and gold-clad fans streaming into the stadium. It was the first time many people had seen each other since the deadly Valley fire killed four and destroyed more than 1,200 homes around Middletown and the surrounding communities.

Galvan, a counselor at the high school and a Middletown High School alum, lost her home in the blaze.

“It’s huge,” she said as her young daughters stamped ticket holders’ hands. “Let’s come out and cheer on our team, cheer on our town.”

But even cheering takes on a different meaning in the wake of tragedy.

Seven of the 21 Middletown High cheerleaders lost everything they owned — including their cheer uniforms — when the fire torched their houses. Cheer coach Leslie Hie, also a Middletown High grad, lost her home, too.

On Friday, Mustang cheerleaders wore an array of uniforms from different eras, some donated from past squad members as far back as 1989 so that girls would not go without. Team members swapped gear with each other purposefully — so to a stranger it would be unclear who had lost their uniform and who hadn’t.

Hie said after the fire, the team clamored to get back to it. Hie felt the pull, too.

“I could focus on them and what 21 girls needed from me,” she said. “It helped me make it through losing everything I owned. They needed me more.”

I didn’t ask, but I don’t think it was an accident that at halftime, the Middletown cheerleaders performed to a medley of songs. One was “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. You know the one: “I get knocked down, but I get up again; You’re never gonna keep me down.”

Friday night offered people a chance to check in, to console, to commiserate. About what was saved, what was lost.

It’s odd what you grab in those rushed moments of panic, said Patsy Pachie. And it’s a slow heartbreak realizing what you’ve left behind: Christmas ornaments, trophies, pictures.

Her family, including Middletown High senior and Miss California High School Rodeo Gracie Pachie, got all of their animals — even the chickens — from their property, but Gracie Pachie left her Miss California white felt hat behind. The one she won and the one she competes in. The one she was supposed to wear as she rode around the track at the stadium before Friday night’s game as Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the U.S.A.”

It was losing the hat that made her come undone for the first time since the fire. Thursday night, she shed tears and the whole bit, because she earned that hat and now it’s gone.

But you wouldn’t have known that Friday, seeing Pachie charge her horse in front of the roaring crowd, the Stars and Stripes flapping fervently over her shoulder. On Friday she had it all back together — a pro doing her job.

Middletown does this routine, with this song, every year at Homecoming. But this year Homecoming got postponed so officials decided they’d do it twice — first on Friday night and again later this season.

And both times, Greenwood will sing the opening lines: “If tomorrow all the things were gone, I worked for all my life, and I had to start again, with just my children and my wife... ”

When asked what was going through her mind in those moments as the music played and her horse galloped beneath her, Gracie’s mom jumped in.

“I think it’s kind of an F-you to the fire,” she said.

Gracie was more measured.

“It’s a big night,” she said. “Everyone in the community lost something, whether their parents did or family friends did. It’s the first time that we’ve done something as a community since the fire.”

And it’s the first time that senior running back Coleman Drew got to lace up his cleats and do his thing in front of the hometown crowd. Drew raced for 125 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough.

“It felt really good. It was a battle,” he said. “They were a very well-coached team; very respectful.”

Drew, whose Mustangs fell to 2-3 overall and 2-1 in the NCL I, was a little disappointed he couldn’t bring home the win Friday night in front of all of those emotional fans. Of course, Drew doesn’t have a home to go to.

“It’s burnt,” he said. “I lost my house.”

Drew is living in a cluster of travel trailers at the Hidden Valley Lake Campground.

“It’s cramped and crazy, but we’re family,” he said.

Drew’s eye black was smeared with sweat but he was still smiling. Despite the loss and despite what’s lost, he’s still smiling.

The scorched hillsides that circle the campus are a constant reminder of what was once here and what is now gone.

In addition to the houses, wides swaths of towering oaks are gone, leaving the look of Middletown’s skyline forever altered.

Ginny Kniffen, the Middletown High School secretary who did not lose her home but is surrounded by colleagues and students who did, tries to see not what was lost, but hopefully what was gained.

The trees may have burned, but that has opened the sky to a whole new view.

“Now we get to see the sunset,” she said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.