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.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here