Up From the Ashes

Times Staff Writer

They were supposed to play tonight for a league championship, on their field, before a raucous hometown crowd, hoping to end a streak of futility against an opponent that has dominated them in recent years.

Instead, members of the Rim of the World High football team will wait until Saturday to play at a stadium a one-hour drive away, hoping that their fans might delay more pressing needs to make the trip.

But they are ever so thankful. They are thankful they are safe, that their families are safe, that their homes are standing, that their season -- the one that had been going according to dream -- wasn't choked by a fire that ravaged so many things familiar.

Rim of the World is on Highway 18 in Lake Arrowhead, overlooking the rugged and normally picturesque San Bernardino Mountains -- terrain that is now scorched hillside speckled with charcoal-colored brush and the skeletons of broken, burned-out trees.

The school, a collection of taupe stucco buildings with blue trim and a two-story mural welcoming visitors to "The Home of the Fighting Scots," was saved by backfires controlled by firefighters who made a stand at the two-lane highway in front of the campus.

Rim athletes were among many displaced locals who watched the firefighting on television, from evacuation centers, motels, faraway campsites and the homes of close (and not-so-close) relatives.

"You start seeing buildings that you recognize, and streets and signs and billboards, and you're like, 'Wow ...' It's like it's not even real," said Morgan Ruffin, the football team's quarterback.

"You worry about your house and your friends and their houses ..."

And, when you're a teenager and a member of a team that has championship aspirations, you worry about something else:

If the school goes, does our season go with it?

*

Before the fire, Rim of the World's fall sports teams were enjoying unprecedented success.

The football team was undefeated, having allowed only 31 points in seven games. The girls' tennis team had a perfect record too. The girls' volleyball team had one loss, but none in Mojave River League play, and the boys' and girls' cross-country teams also led the standings.

"There's never been another year like this one," said Dave Ochs, Rim's athletic director. "This was the most successful fall in school history ... and now this."

Ochs knows the tumult as well as anyone, having evacuated his home and been forced to run the affairs of the school's athletic department the last two weeks while roving from parking lot to parking lot in his family RV.

"The campgrounds are all closed, so I've been like a vagabond," he said. "I've been to Lowe's, Home Depot, Wal-Mart ... Find me a store with a [utility] plug and I'm there."

He laughs, but he knows the situation isn't funny for many of his neighbors on the mountain. People died in several recent fires; others are missing. Homes and valuables and jobs have been lost.

Rim's varsity athletes and coaches know they are among the fortunate. Their family members and homes all survived, which is why they speak in hushed tones when talking about the challenges they face in the coming weeks.

Their school won't reopen until Nov. 17, and they were scared, yes. They are inconvenienced still, even though the fires haven't been a threat for more than a week. But they can afford to move on to matters less important than life and death, but which are priorities to them. Too much work has been invested in their sports seasons to stay distracted for long.

There are playoff games on the horizon, league championships for which to compete.

"I want to get back to volleyball," Rim Coach Linda Pattison said, "but you wonder, 'Is it OK? Is it appropriate? How important is this?'

"You try to strike a balance. There's something to be said for trying to get back to a normal life."

For now, though, not much is routine. Pattison herself was displaced for more than a week, moving from Big Bear to Victorville to San Bernardino and to another location near hers in Lake Arrowhead before she returned home on Monday. Her team -- half of it anyway -- held a makeshift practice that same day. The next day, they practiced again, this time with their own volleyballs and Shannon Moody back at right side hitter. She had flown in from Sacramento earlier in the day.

On Wednesday, the team played Hesperia Sultana and suffered its first league loss, in four games. Earlier in the season, Rim had defeated Sultana in three games in a row.

In the rematch, Rim won the first game, then lost the rest. "They just didn't have their legs," Pattison said of her players. "You could see it, their bodies just gave out."

*

The nucleus of Rim's football team is a group of seniors that has been playing together since the third grade. A group of "mess-around guys ... in a good way," said one of the ringleaders, inside linebacker Mark Meng.

In youth leagues over the years, the team had a record of 35-1, and in one season it outscored its opponents, 299-13.

"After this, we all go to different colleges," Meng said. "This is it for us. We're all friends and our friendship is based on football, and that's what makes this season so special for all of us."

So far, there's just one regret.

Since they reached high school, the group has never defeated Saturday's opponent, their rivals from Phelan Serrano High. "Which is amazing too," Meng said, "because we always used to beat those guys when we were younger."

Serrano, the defending league champion, is 7-1 overall and also undefeated in league games heading into the showdown at Sultana.

Bobby Gradillas, Rim's football coach, was the team's quarterback the last time the Scots won a Southern Section title. The year was 1976.

He and assistant Greg Ward, a running back on that squad, like to remind the team that it has a long way to go before it matches the championship effort of its coaches.

But he knows it's a close-knit and hearty group. If nothing else, they have proven that.

Only a week ago, his players were scattered to the wind, some in Arizona, others in San Diego, Palm Springs, Newport Beach and Cypress.

Then booster club president Bobbi Berteaux took over. Concerned that the team's "ultimate, perfect season" was slipping away, she used her cellphone directory and, augmenting it with that of her son, Brett, the team's flanker, got word out about a team meeting last Sunday in Redlands.

There, coaches were surprised to find nearly all of their players.

A day earlier, Gradillas had managed to sneak around police checkpoints and back up the mountain to the school, where he gathered the team's equipment and as many personal belongings as possible and packed it in his truck.

By Sunday night, the equipment was safely stored at his brother's home in Hesperia, not far from the team's temporary practice field at Sultana, and a core group of players was jammed into rooms at a nearby Super 8 motel, where they were joined by more teammates.

Tuesday night, there were 17 football players and booster club mom Pennie Imus sleeping in four rooms at the Super 8, which, not surprisingly, ran out of food for its continental breakfast buffet the next morning.

"Being separated from each other was horrible for these guys," said Imus, whose son, Mike, starts at center. "The idea that they're all back together has lifted everyone's spirits."

Not that there weren't some problems. Laundry was one. There wasn't any. Several of the players had only one set of everything -- underwear included.

"I said, 'If I'm going to be in here with you, we need to fix that,' " Imus said. So she went out and bought socks, T-shirts and underwear, and spread them out on one of the beds for the players to choose from.

The booster club, which started the season with enough funds that it thought it might sponsor a scholarship, has paid for the motel rooms, food and clothing.

"Our boosters are the best, those people are amazing," Gradillas said. "I don't know how we can ever repay them."

He knows better of course.

A win on Saturday would do it.

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