Nothing more to lose
Harrison Hill kicked through the smoke of uncertainty, the soot of fear, finding the back of the net with a solid right foot on a spotless white ball.
He kicked the first goal, the only goal his Westmont College team would need, then he turned and ran.
He ran past the teammate who, at this moment, owned only the uniform on his back.
He ran past a teammate who had prepared for the game by searching Craigslist for a place to sleep.
He ran off the field, under the covered bench area, and into the arms of one who lost more than any of them.
In last week’s Montecito fire, the home of Westmont Coach Dave Wolf burned to the ground.
Hill hugged his teary-eyed teacher and lifted him to the sky.
“This is the first brick in your new house,” he whispered.
This is how the healing always begins, doesn’t it? A community torn by tragedy searches for a reason to find each other. A group of athletes reaches beyond itself to become that reason.
The healing, it seems, always starts with a game.
On Monday afternoon, on a pristine field abutted again against clear and majestic hills, there was a game like few others. Westmont College played Azusa Pacific University for the Golden State Athletic Conference championship and a spot in the NAIA national tournament.
They played even though Westmont, a private Montecito college with an enrollment of 1,347, had been shut down since last week because of the wildfire.
They played even though 15% of the campus had been destroyed, including faculty housing for about two dozen teachers and a handful of dorms for 50 students.
They played even though they were supposed to play on Saturday, with no rest and no preparation, but the game was delayed by request of Azusa Pacific.
That’s right. Imagine that. Azusa Pacific could have won by forfeit, yet the defending national champions insisted on postponing the game until they could bring the bedraggled Westmont soccer players to their campus, house them, feed them, and get them ready to play.
“At the end of the day, that title can burn up and those rings can melt away,” said Phil Wolf, Azusa Pacific’s coach and brother of the Westmont coach. “Sports are about relationships, family, brotherhood.”
So, heavy underdogs with heavy minds, the Westmont players showed up on the Azusa campus last weekend with little chance of even paying attention until the game.
“I couldn’t even believe we were here,” said Zach George, a freshman whose dorm room burned down, leaving him with nothing, not even his wallet or keys. “We had lost so much.”
But by the time they stepped on the Azusa Pacific field Monday, they had found something.
It was on the other sideline. It was standing five deep, the length of the field, stretching beyond the fences behind the goals, shrieking and cheering and chanting.
It was their people. It was their school. Westmont was officially closed, but its heart had opened to pour out several hundred students and faculty who had driven two hours -- some even on a chartered bus -- to cheer for the first sign of post-fire life.
The cheers of “West-mont” filled the humid air, far stronger than the remaining faint whiff of smoke. It sometimes even drowned out the “A-P-U” cheers from locals who made this gathering of about 500 people the biggest crowd in Azusa Pacific soccer history.
“I know this has been said before, but this time it’s true,” said Westmont freshman Austin Crowder, who was painted in the school colors of red and white. “We’re here to show how we will rise from the ashes.”
The Westmont players saw this, felt it, huddled around their coach before the game and choked back tears and prayed about it.
By the time the game started, the burning had returned, only this time from within.
“There was no way we were losing this game,” said senior midfielder Jonathon Schoff. “I mean, no chance, not an option, no way.”
The fans never quieted. The players never slowed. And no, there was no chance Westmont was losing this game.
The Warriors beat the bigger, stronger, faster Cougars, 2-0, in a match that didn’t feel that close. They seemingly won every contested ball. They appeared to win every race to every corner.
They scored twice in the second half, both goals followed by runs directly into the coaches’ arms.
Just as the emotion fueled Westmont, it drained Azusa Pacific, the classy hosts overcome by their own generosity.
“There was so much going for them, the fans, the momentum, the situation, it was too much for us to overcome,” said junior midfield Eric Winblad. “We almost felt like the bad guys out there.”
That’s sad, because rarely in Southern California sports has there been a better show of sportsmanship than this, Azusa Pacific sacrificing its chance at a title defense to give Westmont a fair shot at taking it.
As impressive as the resilience of the conquerors was the kindness of the conquered.
Goodness, the school didn’t even charge admission to the game and offered the Westmont fans a free lunch of pizza and salad.
“I’ve lost a lot, but right now, I can’t think of one thing I need,” said Westmont’s Dave Wolf. “The people of Azusa Pacific have given us everything.”
Monday’s game ended, and the Westmont fans streamed onto the field, surrounding their heroes, singing, chanting, then coming together for a most amazing final embrace.
They tunneled. That’s right, just like parents in a youth soccer game, they lined up across from each other, stretched out their arms, clasped hands, and formed a tunnel through which the players ran. Darn thing stretched about 50 yards, from Azusa toward Montecito, from despair to hope.
Wolf will soon begin a daunting search for a home for himself, his wife and their five children. But for a few minutes Monday, anything was possible, the sixth-place Warriors advancing to the national tournament, scheduled to host a first-round match next weekend even though they don’t know if they still have a field.
“I know it’s not a very sophisticated answer, but when you ask how I’m feeling about today, I can say only one thing to everyone,” said Dave Wolf, staring red-eyed into a collection of kids dancing, laughing, rising from those ashes. “Thank you.”