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When the Middletown High School boys’ soccer team emerged from the weight room last fall to board the bus for their first playoff game in approximately a decade, students, staff and teachers lined the walkway to cheer them on their way.

Team captain and Cal State Los Angeles-bound senior Jorge Morales remembers that surprise moment more than he remembers the game. He remembers what it felt like for his team be embraced by his school, his community.

“I see Mr. Roderick chanting our ‘I Believe’ chant,” he said. “It just gave me chills.

“That’s beautiful. I’m always going to thank Mr. Roderick for pulling that together,” he said.

Middletown High Principal Bill Roderick was not alone in pulling the students on that campus together in the days, weeks and months following the deadly Valley fire that killed four people, destroyed 1,280 homes and scorched more than 76,000 acres last fall.

Mustangs coaches were at the forefront of the community’s recovery — not rebuilding homes or structures, but rebuilding kids who had lost everything. Nearly 20 percent of Middletown High’s student body lost their homes, Roderick said. Teachers and coaches lost their houses, too.

And still they showed up, they coached, they taught and they guided these kids through one of the toughest times imaginable, all the while navigating those difficulties themselves.

This year, they did more than coach. They gave students a place to go, a place to fight and sweat, a place to compete and lose without the loss meaning quite so much.

And for that, The Press Democrat on Wednesday night honored every Middletown High School coach as our Coach of the Year at our annual All-Empire Awards ceremony.

It was to honor boys’ soccer coach Luis Chairez, who put on scrimmages at the Calistoga shelter just so his guys could play for a couple of hours. For Sarah Carlisle, who rallied her cross country team to show up and race at the Viking Invitational even though some hadn’t been home in days and didn’t know if they had a home to return to.

Usually, the Coach of the Year picks are based largely on records — wins and losses. But this year we wanted to honor coaches for what they did with their teams in the face of immeasurable loss.

Last fall, when the devastation was just hours old, I called Roderick to see what was happening. He said it was unbelievable that the path of destruction ripped clean through town but stopped at the edge of the school’s athletic fields. I remember his telling me that he believed the firefighters knew what the high school meant to the community, that it was a beacon and a gathering place for people no matter if they had kids on campus or not. It was hard to see the fire line, stopping just so, and not believe him.

It was hard to be on Bill Foltmer Field for the first home football game after the fire and not feel exactly what he meant.

Coaches do yeoman’s work. Often it’s unsung. It’s early mornings in the weight room, it’s getting after kids and their grades, it’s appeasing parents over playing time. But it’s also being with kids — our kids — day after day, practice after practice. Yes, teaching them to play ball, but also teaching about life. About winning, about losing, about disappointment, about family — the kind of family you become when you pull on your school’s jersey.

The coaches at Middletown High did that and so much more this year. They coached kids who no longer had cleats because they burned. Who were late to practice because their house burned down and they were living with an aunt 45 minutes away. Jorge Morales, the team captain on the soccer team that went 6-2-3, spent his senior season sleeping in a tent. After practice, he had to wait in line for a public shower at a campsite.

Nobody would have blamed him if he quit.

No way.

“Stepping on the field? It made me forget that I had lost my house, that I didn’t have a place to go,” he said.

But that’s where Morales is wrong.

Coach Chairez gave him a place to go, even if it was at a field near the shelter where a good chunk of the team was staying after their homes burned.

Carlisle gave her runners a place to go when the only way she could communicate with them was via text and Facebook.

Every coach at Middletown High this year had to do an extraordinary job in extraordinary circumstances.

What they did will not show up in the record books.

But their imprint will surely be everlasting.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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