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GEYSERVILLE - Even before the fires, Cardinal Newman’s boys and girls basketball gym schedule was a precarious house of cards held together with baling wire, chewing gum and good relationships.

Then came the deadly wildfires that not only shuttered the campus and the school’s only gymnasium, but burned three other area gyms the Cardinals had already reserved for the season. A fourth, at Mark West Elementary School, is now being used to house students displaced from Riebli Elementary.

In the beginning, it was catch as catch can — an hour at Epicenter here, 90 minutes at a Boys & Girls Club there. The school year that has been anything but normal continues to be so as all Cardinals teams try to navigate different challenges.

“It’s driving here and driving there,” Cardinal Newman athletic director Jerry Bonfigli said. “Little things, like we used to practice and then just go to our weight room and lift weights. We can’t do that now.”

In addition to having students spread out at four different campuses across Sonoma County after the fires destroyed a significant portion of the campus, athletic teams have been on the move ever since. The football team has been in Forestville, the volleyball team was invited to Windsor.

But for the six basketball teams that suit up during Cardinals basketball season, the crunch for gym time is especially acute. That’s 60 hours a week of gym time that they had to pull out of what felt like thin air.

“I have called junior highs, middle schools, they are all full,” Bonfigli said.

“Every practice we are going to a new spot,” senior Steven Zichichi said of those early days after the fire. “We were all over the place.”

There was also that awkward arrangement of asking both friend and athletic foe for a helping hand. Bonfigli went out hat in hand to other schools and groups, bargaining for any time with two hoops.

“Some people are much easier to deal with than other people,” Bonfigli said “Some people don’t care what Newman has to go through and they aren’t really making it easier.”

Windsor High, New Tech Academy in Geyserville, and Santa Rosa Junior College are among the groups that have opened their doors, literally, for Cardinal Newman.

Officials at Elsie Allen, Maria Carrillo and Redwood High in Larkspur immediately offered to host the annual Rose City Tournament — celebrating its 50th running this next month. The event will be on Carrillo’s campus.

“It feels really good because it shows you how strong the Sonoma County community is,” Bonfigli said. “We can put all that stuff aside when there is a real, sincere tragedy. That is why Santa Rosa is a special place.”

The varsity squads have settled into a near-routine in which the boys are practicing at the old Geyserville High campus gym and the girls’ team nabbed gym space at Haehl Pavillion on the SRJC campus — albeit smack dab in the middle of the school day.

“It’s not a consistent schedule, but it is what it is,” said girls’ coach Monica Mertle. “We are just happy to have a gym.”

“The support we have gotten from the JC is absolutely fantastic,” she said. “We’ve had volleyball games, football games there. That’s always nice when you see something positive come out of a bad situation.”

And the bad situation here is unprecedented. Twenty-three deaths, more than 5,100 homes destroyed in Sonoma County. Of the 620 students at Cardinal Newman, 110 lost their homes. On the girls’ varsity team, four-year starter Maiya Flores is one of them. On the boys’ side, juniors Marcus Vidaurri and Brad Slender are two more.

So both Mertle and boys’ coach Tom Bonfigli have worked to make basketball season get off to as normal a start as possible — no matter where they are.

“The worst thing for kids is to be in a situation where nothing is constant or consistent,” Tom Bonfigli said. “When you get them to a good venue and you are coaching them and they are playing hard and are with their friends, there is nothing better.”

Bonfigli is walking the delicate line between wanting to get his kids back into their campus and home gym, and conveying the message that their environs should not matter all that much.

“That is a building,” he said. “Players win games, buildings don’t win games.”

That said, January — the target date for the re-opening of the school — can’t come soon enough.

“We need to get back to our school. We need to get back to our site. We need to get back to our gym,” Tom Bonfigli said.

The good news is that when the campus is re-opened, the gym is ready to go. It went largely untouched in the blaze.

“They wiped the inside of the gym. They were doing the lockers and swept and disinfected,” Jerry Bonfigli said. “Our gym, we could walk in and play a game tomorrow.”

Senior Brad Morato said there may be a silver lining in the struggle, perhaps something to bring the team together like nothing else.

“After losing what we lost I think it kind of opens it up for us to come out and make a statement, ‘Yeah, we lost a lot but it’s not going to stop us.”

You can reach Kerry Benefield at 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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