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Benefield: Cross country coaches lean on each other in wildfires' wake

Santa Rosa High School cross country coach Doug Courtemarche, times his runners during a workout at Spring Lake, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015 (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

Santa Rosa High has eight.

Maria Carrillo has four, plus two coaches.

Cardinal Newman has at least five.

Montgomery and Piner both have three.

Sonoma Academy has three.

When area cross country coaches sat around Santa Rosa High co-coach Doug Courtemarche’s kitchen table Monday to help each other find a way forward after the deadly wildfires that have ravaged Wine Country, they shared unofficial tallies of how many team members have lost their homes.

The numbers were staggering. And they could rise. Kids have taken flight and some haven’t been back or in touch since the fires erupted last week, torching thousands of homes and killing at least 22 people in Sonoma County alone.

Santa Rosa High, which traditionally pulls kids from fire-ravaged neighborhoods Fountaingrove and Sleepy Hollow, has at least 70 students who have lost their homes, according to Principal Brad Coscarelli. At Sonoma Academy, the list includes more than 40 of its students and staff, said cross country coach Danny Aldridge.

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Piner High is likely to be another campus hit hard by the fires. The Coffey Park neighborhood, a feeder neighborhood for Piner, was leveled by flames.

Even Spring Lake, the traditional race course for both the Sonoma County League and North Bay League, was threatened by flames and its fate as a venue is unknown. Trione-Annadel State Park, a favorite training ground for cross country runners, has been devastated by the blaze.

The coaches, who are not all from the same league, not all from the same division, but all from the same community, met to talk schedules, yes, but also about how to share donations that are starting to come in.

They also, to an outsider’s point of view, came together to be together.

“I think that’s what it became — a counseling group for all of us,” Aldridge said. “We were all just brainstorming, not just how to get back together doing our own thing, but how to be helpful to each other.”

Some coaches have kids chomping at the bit to get back to workouts that have been on hold as the air quality spiked to dangerous levels. For them, time slots at area gyms have been secured and workout plans on treadmills have been suggested.

But for others, kids have expressed a need just to hang out — no workout, just hang out.

These coaches are trying to give every kind of athlete a way back in to a new normal.

Lingering with the smoke is a feeling of disbelief. Coaches, like the rest of us, are just starting to wrap their heads around what has happened here.

Greg Fogg likely feels that disbelief more than any coach around that table Monday.

The head coach at Maria Carrillo not only had four runners who lost their homes, but his family was chased from their house in the early morning hours of Monday, Oct. 9. Fogg figures it was perhaps 90 minutes after he left that his home of 23 years was consumed by flames.

“I’ve never been down this road before,” he said. “I’m still a little numb.

“We have a lot of memories,” he said. “We have two cars of clothes and photos.”

But Fogg still wants to talk running. He’s a coach.

He’s got kids scattered around the state. Some have found refuge in the Tahoe area. Others are with relatives and have texted their coach to let him know they are training with other high school teams.

“I don’t know where everybody is; they are everywhere,” Fogg said.

Fogg said he has runners on his team who will not only endure, but use the trauma as fuel: “Look at how many things are stacked against you.”

And as talented as his team is, Fogg wants them to run both to stay in shape but also for release.

“I feel bad for anyone who is around runners who are cooped up,” he said.

And Fogg wants his kids to keep focused. He is.

“I’m not giving up,” he said. “I’m still keeping my expectations up.”

All the coaches around the table were searching for ways to get the kids together, whether for a workout or just a hangout.

The Santa Rosa Panthers had about 25 runners meet up last week. Piner coach Luis Rosales’ Sebastopol house has become a post-run hangout, in part because the air in the western reaches of Sonoma County is cleaner but also because his team likes to raid his food pantry.

“I had 18 kids at my house,” he said, smiling.

The kids find each other, either for runs or for simple company.

“Kids are social; they need to be around their tribe,” Santa Rosa co-coach Carrie Joseph said.

She, too, needs it. She only returned to her home Monday night.

“I think kids crave routine,” she said. “For a lot of these kids it’s working hard after school, sweating. There is something empty, something missing.”

For many, there will always be something missing. The coaches see it in so many texts they are getting — homes no longer standing, running shoes lost to flames, uniforms gone missing.

And maybe even the runners themselves. Some kids may not have the ability to come back, depending on their family’s circumstances.

“We are still not sure who we’ll see again,” Courtemarche said.

It’s uncharted waters for everyone. These coaches are trying to navigate it right along with their athletes.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting at iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”