The undefeated Paradise High football team has famously risen from the ashes of their decimated town this season by stubbornly clinging together.
“We’ve been a brotherhood,” running back Lukas Hartley said. “We’ve lost so much but we still have each other.”
Now, in the most brutal of ironies, that very brotherhood could cost them a shot at a championship.
The CIF Northern Section informed Paradise on Tuesday that six of its players — all starters, 15% of its 39-man varsity roster — will be suspended for Friday’s Division 3 semifinal game against undefeated West Valley because of their actions in a scuffle in last week’s first-round victory over Live Oak.
The Bobcats have been tenacious symbols of the first signs of rebirth of a Northern California mountain community that was razed last year in the deadliest wildfire in California history. Yet the CIF has ruled that in their relentless devotion to one another, the Bobcats went too far.
“Our list of obstacles just goes on and on,” coach Rick Prinz said. “It’s been such a tough year, the kids have consistently tried to hold this team together and be there for each other ... and now they’re getting punished for it.”
In the third quarter of an eventual 56-0 Bobcats win last Friday in Paradise, the players from the two teams tangled in a scrum that began when Live Oak defensive tackle Tony Salazar allegedly twisted Hartley’s head.
The Bobcats’ Stetson Morgan was ejected for a retaliatory hit that resulted in an automatic suspension. While Paradise officials thought the ejection was unfair, they were downright shocked at the ramifications of what happened next.
Jose Valesquez, whose helmet was pulled off on a previous play, was suspended for wrestling around at the bottom of the scrum. Four other Bobcats — Elijah Gould, Caleb Bass, Angel López and Julian Ontiveros — were suspended for running on to the field to pull teammates away.
While the CIF rules call for the suspension of anyone committing a flagrant foul or leaving the bench during an incident, Paradise officials were stunned by the lack of perspective in the decision rendered by CIF Northern Section Commissioner Elizabeth Kyle, who could not be reached for comment.
They will immediately appeal the ruling to a CIF board based on the argument that their athletes, five of whom were not penalized for fighting, were simply protecting one another as they have done both on and off the field during the most difficult year of their young lives.
“We know the letter of the law, but we’re hoping they look at intent,” Prinz said. “Our players weren’t going out to fight, they were going out to keep their teammates out of trouble. Their intent was to take care of each other.”
Watching each other’s backs has been the foremost mission of the Bobcats since Nov. 8, 2018, when virtually all of them lost their homes. The Camp Fire claimed 85 lives and destroyed an estimated 19,000 structures, quickly razing the town as many residents drove through the burning fury to safety.
The players all survived, but are now scattered in various houses, apartments and trailers throughout surrounding communities. Only three actually live in Paradise. Many are still suffering the traumatic effects of the tragedy. On the fire’s one-year anniversary earlier this month, half the team didn’t show up at school.
“Our athletes are under a lot of trauma, we are dealing with a lot of issues, and the fact that they did not try to fight speaks to the strides we have made,” said Paradise athletic director Anne Stearns, who will prepare the appeal.
They will have to make even bigger strides if the appeal is denied. Just like that, the Bobcats offense has lost a starting running back, receiver and guard, while the Bobcats defense lost two starting linemen and a linebacker. All this, just days before they play their toughest opponent of the season in a Friday night game at top-seeded West Valley.
A victory there would catapult Paradise into a Northern Section Division 3 championship game next week, where a win would place the team in a Northern California regional bowl game, extending its storybook season with a chance to qualify for a state championship bowl game.
Yet the storybook continues to scuffle.
A couple of players will now have to play offense and defense. Some junior varsity players may be forced into action. The suspensions change everything except, perhaps, the most important thing.
“Of all the things that have happened to us in the last year, this is just something else to add to the list,” said quarterback Danny Bettencourt. “This is more fuel. This is something else to overcome. It makes us angrier, more inspired, more ready to play.”
They aren’t the only ones. When contacted for comment, Paradise Unified School District Superintendent Michelle John was emotional in her disappointment.
“I’m sad, I’m just sad, for everything these kids have been through,” she said. “It saddens me that it comes to this. I’m having a very hard time with it.”
She issued a statement in which she pleaded for CIF understanding.
“After viewing the film several times, I disagree with the sanctions imposed by CIF and support PHS filing an appeal,” she wrote. “PHS varsity football players literally ran for their lives last November.
“They lost their homes and all their belongings. The players hung on to their coaches and each other to help get them through this tragedy. They have formed an unbreakable bond through this trauma.”
She continued: “The four players I witnessed going on to the field were helping their ‘brothers’ to remove themselves from the scrum, and at no time did I witness any of these four players put hands on opposing team players.”
When Prinz gave his players the news Tuesday during the daily final-period film session in classroom 114, he said they reacted with stony silence. Some of them quietly stood up, left the room and walked down to the field.
However, Prinz promises that on Friday night against West Valley in the tiny Shasta County town of Cottonwood, the Bobcats will be heard.
“I only know one thing that is certain to happen,” he said. “I know we are going to go up there and we’re going to play our butts off.”
They have indeed lost so much. They truly still have each other.