From the ashes of the Thomas fire in December to the destruction and deaths of the Montecito mudslides in January, the Santa Barbara community has been dealing with devastation and sorrow.
Rising up to provide some inspiration has been the boys' soccer team from Santa Barbara High. On Saturday, led by its standout goalie, Ben Roach, Santa Barbara won the Southern Section Division 1 championship by beating L.A. Cathedral on penalty kicks.
"We took it upon ourselves to be maybe a release for everyone, including ourselves," coach Todd Heil said. "It's been tough but it's brought us closer together."
The Thomas fire, the largest wildfire in California history, burned for more than a month in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying 2,820 structures and killing 15 people. The mudflows killed at least 21 people and destroyed more than 100 homes.
"I've never experienced anything like this," Heil said. "The fires were one thing. Us not having to play for two weeks was so minuscule. We thought it was the worst. Then we didn't know about the mudslides. The hardest part is two young people haven't been found and one is a Santa Barbara student that we knew."
Amid all the disruptions and distractions, the players focused on playing the sport they loved. And what a team they became.
Roach, a 6-foot-3 senior, recorded 16 shutouts this season and allowed just nine goals. In the last two games, against L.A. powers Loyola and Cathedral, neither team could score through a total of four overtime periods. Santa Barbara won it all when Roach stopped three penalty kicks after a scoreless regulation and two overtimes.
"Having Ben Roach in the nets helps a lot," Heil said.
Roach, who is headed to UC Santa Barbara, didn't play for Santa Barbara as a sophomore and junior. He was making two-hour trips to Woodland Hills to train for Real So Cal in the Academy League. He decided to return to his high school team for his senior year.
"The last months have been super surreal," he said. "When the fires and mudslides were happening, it was crazy."
No players lost homes or were injured, but everyone seems to know someone affected by the tragedies.
"I had a few friends lose a house," Roach said.
Winning a championship doesn't take away the hurt of a community, but it does signal the determination and commitment to move forward with a purpose.
"To bring home some hardware for the people was definitely big for us," Roach said.
Santa Barbara begins the Southern California Regional playoffs on Tuesday against Fresno Sunnyside at San Marcos.
Carpinteria also dealt with the effects of missing weeks of practice because of the Thomas fire and mudslides and won the Southern Section Division 6 championship in overtime.
Another individual soccer standout was Emilio Vallin of El Camino Real. He scored three goals to rally the Conquistadores to a 3-2 win over Sotomayor in the City Section Division I final.
And San Juan Capistrano JSerra won the Southern Section Division 1 girls' title with a 1-0 win over Santa Margarita. JSerra improved to 19-1-4 and is probably the No. 1 girls' team in the nation.
State playoffs begin
The Southern California basketball regionals begin this week. Santa Ana Mater Dei was seeded No. 1 in the eight-team Open Division boys' tournament that begins Friday. The Monarchs will host Fairfax. No. 2 is Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, No. 3 Torrance Bishop Montgomery and No. 4 Westchester.
The best opening matchup could be Etiwanda at Westchester. A Bishop Montgomery-Sierra Canyon semifinal is looming on March 13.