Benefield: Santa Rosa Junior College women's soccer team didn't let North Bay firestorm divert focus

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The season could have been written off and no one would have blamed them.

Two starters on the Santa Rosa Junior College women’s soccer team were left homeless after the deadly wildfires destroyed so much in Sonoma County last month. Other players were evacuated from their homes, and pretty much everyone was scattered to the wind.

Practices, at least for a time, were prohibited because school was canceled and the air quality was dangerous.

The Coffey Park home goalkeeper Bailey Cahill has lived in since she was two years old burned to the ground.

Not only did the fire destroy all that the Cahills owned, it also burned defender Natasha Wallace’s belongings.

Wallace had been living with the Cahills so she wouldn’t have to commute to school from Vallejo.

“My parents took her in because they could see what kind of person she is,” Cahill said.

By the morning of Oct. 9, both Cahill and Wallace were homeless. But they were still teammates. And they still had soccer.

“The moment the fires hit, we had a decision to make,” coach Crystal Howard said.

“We can either use this as an excuse to have an average or below-average season, or have it motivate us,” she said. “We really accepted the fact that we weren’t going to let it be an excuse.”

They had plenty of excuses to pick from. Wallace, a starting defender who scored three goals and had three assists on the season, was left with little more than her bicycle and her 70-pound pit bull, Bentley.

“I had a lot of tools. I like to fix things myself,” she said. “I lost my car, too, so I guess there is no need for tools.”

Cahill, who was not at home the night of the blaze and had to get updates from her mom about the fate of their family home, had only what was with her for an overnight.

Cahill has been a rock in goal for the team this season, allowing .71 goals per game and eight shut outs.

The fire didn’t change that.

“Bailey is such an amazing goalkeeper,” said the Bear Cubs’ leading scorer, sophomore Kayleigh Alves. “I think she came out even stronger, actually. She didn’t let it faze her at all. I didn’t hear her say a negative word.”

And Alves, who led the team with 11 goals and two assists on the season, was watching closely.

It was two years ago that Alves, then a senior at Middletown High, was evacuated during a soccer game, only to learn that her family home had burned down in the Valley fire.

Alves described these past weeks since the fires as the worst kind of deja vu.

“I know that Bailey and Tash were both in the same situation and I’ve gone through it before, so they weren’t alone,” she said.


“Being surrounded by the team and coaching staff, it really encouraged me to focus my energy on what I had and not what I don’t have,” Cahill said. “I never once felt alone. I was going through such a traumatic thing, my teammates and friends and family all made it so much easier.”

“I told them the only reason I got through this the way I have been able to is because of my team,” Wallace said. “They were the first people to put clothes on my back and were there for me. I had my birthday on the 12th and everybody was there at the dinner. I thought it was going to be a really crappy birthday and it ended up being one of the best ones of my life.

“It was difficult, but coming through it and everyone rallying together? If I didn’t have strength, my teammates had it for me,” she said.

Howard said she knew her team had grit not only because of how they rallied for Wallace and Cahill, but because of how they dealt with what came next.

The Bear Cubs were 7-3-2 when the fires started Oct. 8. It would be 16 days, and a long stretch without any kind of practice, until they could play another game. In their first outing back, they tied Sierra College 1-1 on the road Oct. 24. And because they had to make up postponed games, they went on a run of playing games Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

“Three games in a span of four days is unheard of in soccer,” Howard said.

There is the physical wear and tear, but also the emotional buildup before a game that can wear a player out, she said.

So Howard had to do seemingly little things that actually aren’t so little. She had to monkey with her lineup multiple times to move people around, so that she could rest players as much as possible while still going for wins.

Along the way, there were certainly high points.

The players from Sierra wrote every Bear Cub a personal letter and gave them the notes when they played each other Oct. 24. The squad from San Joaquin Delta brought massive containers of food, clothes and toiletry items to the Nov. 2 game. The players from Clovis packed goodie bags with snacks and drinks for every player after their playoff game Nov. 18.

And teammates have continued to buoy one another.

Freshman Eden Brooker, who was a standout at Montgomery High, welcomed Cahill into her family’s home. Wallace was taken in by an assistant coach.

The ties that bind only grew tighter.

“It’s a big deal, but so far it’s perfect,” Brooker said of her family’s new living arrangement. “My family loves having her around. I have a younger brother, a younger sister and a younger stepsister. There is a lot of us. We kind of threw Bailey into the crazy farm, but she’s taking it like a champ.”

And on the field, the Bear Cubs found a way, too.

The team rallied to tally a 4-1-3 record after the fire, good enough for third place in the Big 8 and the No. 6 seed in the California Community College Athletic Association Northern California Regionals tournament.

They dispatched the No. 11 seed, Clovis, only to land a 7 p.m. road game against third-seeded Lake Tahoe. That meant an all-hours bus ride after a game played in freezing temperatures and at altitude.

“Twenty-four hours before the game, I was fighting to have the game moved up,” Howard said. “But we have been through worse, so bring it on. I can sit here and complain about a 7 p.m. game or just say, ‘Whatever, this is just another notch on our belt and something we are going to conquer.’”

And they did.

In miserable conditions — Cahill had to have another defender take her goal kicks because her feet were too numb — the Bear Cubs posted a 1-0 upset, thanks to a second-half Alves goal on a Wallace assist against a team that had beaten the Bear Cubs 3-2 back in September.

“That Tahoe game was one for the books,” Brooker said. “I’m from Canada, so I know the cold and I was miserable. It was awful.”

The fairytale ending was not to be, though. After the Tahoe triumph, the Bear Cubs fell to rival Folsom Lake 2-0 in the third round on Saturday.

But it was after that loss that the team’s final win — in the cold, in the mountains, 200 miles away — started to take outsized meaning.

“We made it through the whole season, we made it through the fire as a team, we made it through all of these games back to back to back,” Cahill said. “Looking back on it now, that moment was priceless. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”

The Bear Cubs’ final record will go down as 13-5-5 overall and 8-2-5 in the Big 8. But this season was much more than wins and losses.

“We did what no team could do. No other team had to go through what we did and we beat a lot of teams to get to the point that we did,” Brooker said. “We had teammates and best friends and families losing homes and their property and their jobs and overcoming adversity. Having the result that we did, with the heart that we did, there is no way that we could have everlasting disappointment in the way it ended.”

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

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