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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Jeff Nielson didn’t know what his kids would say.

When the coach of the Cardinal Newman volleyball team got his squad together just five days after fires burned about half of their campus and destroyed the homes of approximately 90 of the school’s 620 students — including three of his varsity players — he wasn’t sure what direction the girls would want to take. But he was prepared to follow.

“I said, ‘We can have the season go however you want. I’m totally open. If you still want to get after it and really work hard, then let’s go for it,” he said. “To a person, they said ‘Hey look, were still in it, we are still excited about playing, so let’s get after it.’”

It’s the same conversation that took place in gyms and on fields across Sonoma County after a series of wildfires — including the Tubbs fire, the most devastating wildfire in California history — killed 23 people, destroyed 6,800 structures: How do we go on?

For Santa Rosa volleyball coach Amber Oden, there is no shame in admitting that in the earliest days of the tragedy, she wasn’t sure she wanted to finish the season.

An early count last week had more than 70 of Santa Rosa High’s 2,000 students suddenly without homes.

“My heart was a little unnerved,” she said.

“Volleyball became such a little piece because I know people whose lives were destroyed,” she said. “There was definitely a part of me that said, ‘Volleyball is a game’ and I need to get in the trenches, not come up with a lineup.”

But Oden, like many other coaches in the area, decided that being a coach at this moment in kids’ lives is being in the trenches. Students and their families are enduring so much — maybe a coach can help, maybe a sport can give people respite from the weight of so much loss.

Still, when Oden met the kids for the first time in the foyer of the Santa Rosa High gym, she didn’t know how it would feel.

But when her girls said they wanted to play on and play hard, Oden was on board.

“I do want to be back in here, I do want to finish with the kids,” she said. “I’m glad we are going on.”

The journey toward normalcy for most teams started with practice. The Santa Rosa High gym was cleared for use Monday at 12:30 p.m. Oden called a practice a couple of hours later.

“I would love to say it was business as usual because of my personality,” she said, adding that there is no such thing as business as usual at this point. Plus, many of the players hadn’t touched a ball in two weeks.

“They were very out of shape, they were very tired,” she said.

Coaches are having to figure out what’s best for kids and teams — do they do things like they have always done and get kids back into a routine? Or do they lighten the mood, go easy and make sure the sport doesn’t became another emotional burden?

“It’s hard because you want to try and get kids back to some sort of normalcy as soon as possible, but in the big picture, our community suffered a devastating tragedy,” said Montgomery volleyball coach Becky Stavropoulos.

NHRA QUALIFYING

Pritchett among top qualifiers Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) earned the top qualifying positions Saturday and will lead their classes into Sunday’s eliminations at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

In Top Fuel, Pritchett earned her fifth No. 1 qualifying position of the season with a run of 3.669 seconds at 304.80 mph. She’ll face Terry Haddock in the first round.

Brittany Force earned the No. 2 spot after a pass of 3.689 at 330.63 and is paired against Steve Chrisman.

Hight’s national record speed of 339.87 with a time of 3.807 earned him back-to-back No. 1 qualifying positions. He’ll line up against Tim Gibbons to open eliminations.

Hight’s team owner, John Force, had a pass of 3.848 at 337.16 to secure the No. 2 slot. He will face Jeff Diehl in the first round.

Skillman earned the top spot in Pro Stock with his run of 6.538 at 211.36. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Smith had a pass of 6.771 at 198.70.

When Maria Carrillo’s gym was cleared for use and coach Ally Deal called a practice, there was initially more hugging than hitting.

“There were a lot of hugs, a lot of, ‘So glad you are here,’” she said. “But once practice starts, let’s try to make this as normal as possible.”

That’s a tall order.

The volleyball game against Cardinal Newman tonight marks the first home athletic event since the fires destroyed the homes of approximately 130 of Maria Carrillo’s 1,500 students.

It also comes on the eve of the return to school — Santa Rosa City Schools students have been out of class for nearly three weeks.

So keeping things feeling normal won’t be easy. But to that end, the Pumas are going ahead with their “Dig Pink” event Thursday. Every year, the volleyball team hosts a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness. That will go on, but this year, instead of donating proceeds from gate revenues, admission will be free and donations will be accepted.

The Maria Carrillo parents association will host a pre-game gathering in the quad with music and food. There will also be a table offering information on relief for fire victims. Cardinal Newman fans are welcome, too.

The value in team takes on new meaning in times like these.

“To be surrounded by kids that are also going through the same situation and who are supportive and checking in and truly care?” Deal said.

That’s our new normal.

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 on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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