When three of his players didn't show up for their 8 a.m. soccer match Saturday, coach Billy McNicol of Mission Viejo Soccer Club didn't think much of it.
It wasn't unusual for some of the elite team's members, all 14- and 15-year-olds, to arrive a little late. But when the game ended and Alex Sotelo, Matthew Melo and Brandon Moreno still hadn't showed, McNicol was alarmed.
Then he got the call from one of the boy's relatives: All three of the teens had perished in an fiery early-morning crash on the 5 Freeway in Irvine, along with two girls.
The sole survivor, a 16-year-old male and the driver of the vehicle, was taken to Mission Hospital with a serious head injury, authorities said. He told a responding paramedic that the group was returning home from a night at Knott's Scary Farm, officials said.
As the news spread at Oso Viejo field in Mission Viejo, McNicol, who has run the soccer teams for 15 years, made a decision to cancel all the games scheduled for the rest of the weekend.
"These are good boys," he said, his voice breaking. "We are devastated. Just devastated."
Orange County fire officials say the teens were traveling southbound on the 5 when their vehicle left the freeway and crashed into an embankment. The older-model BMW caught fire, briefly igniting brush before flames were doused by firefighters.
Orange County coroner's officials have not yet identified the victims or the driver. But McNicol and two of the boys' teammates said they have been told that the males killed in the car are Alex, Matthew and Brandon. Alex and Matthew were ninth-graders at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, and Brandon was in eighth grade at Carl Hankey Middle School in Mission Viejo.
Identities of the females and their home towns, as well as the driver, were not available. California Highway Patrol investigators have not released a cause of the accident but said speed was a factor.
In California, drivers younger than 17½ generally are prohibited from driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and aren't allowed to have passengers under 20 years old.
Nicholas Scarpone, team co-captain, and his father, Larry, had left the park when McNicol called to ask them to return.
"Everyone was just crying," said Nicholas, a ninth-grader at San Clemente High School. Nicholas said he, Matthew and Alex were best friends who bonded over soccer. "They were just really close friends," Nicholas said, "and it's sad to have them go this way." He said he had only recently met Brandon.
"It feels so unreal and hasn't hit me that they're gone," said Jorge Menchaca, a ninth-grader from San Juan Hills High School and another team co-captain. "I can't believe I won't see them anymore."
Jorge said he and Alex had "pretty much been friends since way back."
"He always showed up with such great attitude," Jorge said. "He had a lot of passion for the game."
McNicol, their coach, said the youths come from modest backgrounds and have always been respectful toward their teammates, soccer officials and him.
Alex was the team's leading goal scorer and an outgoing presence, the coach said. Brandon was new but worked hard to make it to the elite squad, he said.
McNicol, a Scottish native, said that as a former pro-level coach for the Los Angeles Galaxy he recognizes talent and saw it in "Matt," who he compared to a son.
"He's a little small," he said. "But he played so big."