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The Santa Clara University women’s soccer team was flying south late the night of Oct. 8 after a game with Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, when sophomore striker Maddy Gonzalez saw the fires from 35,000 feet in the air.

“It was like a horror film,” she said. “I didn’t know it was Santa Rosa.”

She also didn’t know it was her home.

Gonzalez, the three-time All-Empire Player of the Year in soccer while playing for Maria Carrillo, was more than halfway through her sophomore season with the Broncos. She had scored five goals in 15 games and the Broncos were 8-6-1 overall and 3-1 in the West Coast Conference.

When the plane landed, Gonzalez’s phone rang. It was Maddy’s mom, Sally.

“My mom calls me, ‘Hey we are being evacuated. Do you want anything from your room?” Gonzalez said.

She doesn’t remember feeling anything urgent. She told her mom to grab a small plaque with the allegorical poem about Jesus and footprints in the sand that her grandmother had given her.

“Everything else will be fine,” she thought.

But things in Santa Rosa were increasingly chaotic.

Sally Gonzalez had arranged a meeting spot on Old Redwood Highway with Maddy’s younger sister, Kitana, who was a senior on the Maria Carrillo soccer team. Kitana Gonzalez had been out of the house when the fires started and when she tried to return, emergency crews turned her back.

Sally Gonzalez grabbed a few things from around the house: Kitana’s homework, Maddy’s plaque and some dirty clothes. She headed for the door.

“The minute I unlocked our latch, the door blew back into the wall,” Sally Gonzalez said.

The wind was howling. She thought it was snowing.

“But it was ashes,” she said.

Sally Gonzalez drove west to meet Kitana. Maddy and Kitana’s dad, Rudy Gonzalez, headed south on Cross Creek Road and turned left on Thomas Lake Harris Drive before heading east over Fountaingrove Parkway. When he hit the peak he looked back.

“You could see all the mountain coming,” he said. “By then it looked so bad I thought there is no chance my house is going to survive.”

After Sally Gonzalez reunited with Kitana, she called Maddy in Santa Clara to tell her what she knew in her gut: Everything was gone. The Gonzalez’s home on Linda Lane off Riebli Road burned down in the wildfires that killed 24 people and destroyed 5,334 homes in Sonoma County.

“I pretty much lost it,” Maddy remembered.

***

It’s been one year since Gonzalez got that call from her mom, telling her that everything she had grown up with was gone. Middle school yearbooks, soccer trophies, her favorite Christmas sweater, all gone. Even a year later, it’s still happening – that realization that something you thought you’d have forever is no longer.

“Sometimes I still dream about it,” she said. “Everything was in that room: My teenage years, my childhood years, pictures in there. What’s going through my head is I’m never going to see my baby pictures again.”

But from the moment that Sally and Rudy Gonzalez realized their family home was gone, they urged Maddy to stay in Santa Clara. They almost forbade her from coming north. She was in the middle of her sophomore season and was a crucial piece of the Broncos’ starting 11.

But more than that, her parents felt that soccer, and her team, could keep her safe – safe from worry and from sadness and from the weight of everything that was happening in the town she called home.

“She had too much on her plate over there to worry about something that she couldn’t do anything about,” Rudy Gonzalez said. “I worried about her worrying and her focus.”

And Rudy Gonzalez knew Maddy was in good hands, and that being far from the day to day sadness that hung in the air after the fires was probably for the best.

“That team was really close already,” he said. “I could tell that team bonded with her and the families and the teammates were really great with her. They supported her and gave her a lot of love.”

Broncos families navigated Byzantine NCAA rules in order to set up a GoFundMe campaign for the family, Santa Clara University replaced Gonzalez’s soccer awards, and teammates collected clothes and household goods for the Gonzalezes.

But more, they gave Maddy Gonzalez the green light to play soccer.

***

When Gonzalez woke up in Santa Clara on the morning of Oct. 9, she could smell the smoke. Everything from the night before was a blur.

She opted not to go to class. A friend took her to the beach. Longtime head coach Jerry Smith told her to take her time, so for the first time in what felt like forever, Gonzalez said she would not be at soccer practice.

Bad move.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t good for me,’” she said of sitting out.

Turns out taking time was not what she needed. She needed soccer. She needed her team.

“I went back the next day. I said, ‘I can’t do this,’” she said. “I knew (Smith) wasn’t going to go easy on me. I just need this, I need to be back. I wanted just to feel nothing. I wanted it just to be soccer.”

“Once I stepped on the field, I could be in my own world again. I felt untouched by the fire,” she said. “Soccer really helped me escape that stress.”

Turns out soccer is what the entire Gonzalez clan needed.

Through it all, Sally and Rudy Gonzalez didn’t miss a home game all season. No matter that they were living with Sally’s parents in central Santa Rosa. No matter that they discovered they were underinsured. No matter that they felt the almost unbearable sadness that so many felt after losing their homes and seeing a giant piece of their city burned to the ground.

Maddy Gonzalez didn’t feel right when she wasn’t playing soccer, and Rudy and Sally didn’t feel right if they weren’t watching her.

“I told her, ‘What makes us happy is to get out of here and watch you,’” Sally Gonzalez said. “Being there, it was like a vacation away from here. It was nice to get my mind on just watching her.”

And it was its own kind of family for Sally and Rudy.

The Broncos’ first game post-fire was at St. Mary’s on Oct. 20. Santa Clara won 6-1.

Emotions were still raw. When Smith and his wife, U.S. Women’s National team legend Brandi Chastain, greeted the Gonzalezes, Maddy’s parents “lost it.”

***

For as good as Gonzales felt on the soccer field, and as much as playing took her mind off of everything, she was concerned that the fallout from the fire would affect her play going forward.

“I was worried about stepping on the game field after that,” she said. “I was all in my head and when I’m in my head, I don’t play my best, I don’t play well for others.”

She needn’t have worried.

In the 18th minute of the Broncos’ next game, on the road against University of the Pacific, Gonzalez scored her sixth goal of the season and her first since the fire.

“It felt like such a relief,” she said.

Gonzalez had scored five goals in the first 15 games of the season before the fire. Post-fire, she scored five in the final seven games – including two against Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Soccer saved her, in a way.

“It’s just like whenever I have problems, big or small, I focus so heavily on it,” she said. “I knew that it was going to be good for me.”

And her teammates never pushed her to move on, or not have bad days, she said. They still don’t.

“I’m completely vulnerable with them,” she said. “My teammates were my rock.”

Sally and Rudy Gonzalez can see that.

That was the main reason they pushed their daughter to stay the course and to tune most everything else out.

This season, the Broncos are 11-1-1 and ranked 4th in the nation. Gonzalez leads all scorers with seven goals. She has also added two assists. They play at Pepperdine today.

Maddy Gonzalez said her teammates and soccer saved her last year. She continues to lean on them.

For Sally Gonzalez, there is also a debt of gratitude. The Broncos gave her daughter safe haven when everything else in the world felt chaotic. And for that, the Gonzalezes repaid them in a way that felt most meaningful – telling Maddy to play her heart out.

“We can pay them back in the only we can, and that’s with you,” she said.

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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