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 assumed they were simply running late.
By the end of the game, Alex Sotelo, Matthew Melo and Brandon Moreno still hadn't showed, and McNicol was alarmed.
Then he got the call from a relative of one of the boys: All three, along with two girls, had perished in a fiery early morning crash on the 5 Freeway in Irvine.
The sole survivor, a 16-year-old boy who was the driver of the vehicle, was taken to Mission Hospital with a serious head injury, authorities said. He told responding paramedics that the group was heading home after a night at Knott's Scary Farm, the popular Halloween theme park at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park. The attraction, which includes 10 mazes as well as live shows and "scare zones," closed at 2 a.m.
Authorities had not determined the cause of the accident but said that speed was a factor and that the driver apparently did not have a driver's license.
"We ran his name and date of birth his parents gave us, and there was no record of him having a license," said California Highway Patrol Officer Florentino Olivera. The name of the owner of the vehicle was not released.
In California, motorists 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.
Investigators said the teens were traveling south on the 5 near the 133 Freeway interchange about 2:10 a.m. when their sedan veered off the roadway and hit a guardrail. The white 1995 BMW continued up an embankment and came to rest on a concrete retaining wall, where it became engulfed in flames, CHP officials said.
That touched off a small brush fire around the vehicle, which Orange County firefighters extinguished at 2:20 a.m., the CHP said. Five bodies were found inside the vehicle and the driver was found outside, officials said.
Orange County coroner's officials hadn't released the names of the victims or the driver. But McNicol and two of the boys' teammates said they had been told that the boys killed in the car were 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.
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."
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 came from modest backgrounds and were always respectful toward their teammates, soccer officials and him.
Alex was the team's leading scorer and an outgoing presence, the coach said. Brandon was new but had worked hard to make it to the more advanced squad, he said.
McNicol, a native of Scotland, said that as a former pro-level coach for the Los Angeles Galaxy he recognizes talent and saw it in Matt, whom he compared to a son.
"He's a little small," he said. "But he played so big."
Jailene Garcia, 15, a freshman at Capistrano Valley High School, said she had known Matthew and Brandon since third grade. She described them as kind, caring boys who were always making each other laugh and dreamed of playing college soccer together.
"They had really loving souls," she said.
A candlelight vigil is scheduled for Sunday night at Capistrano Valley High.