The ashes were still smoldering Monday when Westmont College basketball coach John Moore took the podium at the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table luncheon and declared, “Out of the ashes rise the Warriors.” At that very moment, 115 miles away, a Westmont Warrior team that had been underdogs throughout the Golden State Athletic Conference men’s soccer tournament was about to rise.
Westmont’s 2-0 victory over Azusa Pacific in the championship game was a stunning triumph after a harrowing weekend of loss in the flames of the Tea Fire. Soon after the blaze broke out last Thursday night, it raced toward Westmont in a wind-blown fury and devoured the tender edges of the college.
The homes of 14 faculty members were destroyed by the fire, including those of three longtime coaches-Russell Smelley, the cross-country and track coach since 1979; Kathy LeSage, head coach of women’s tennis since 1985; and Dave Wolf, who took over the men’s soccer program in 1991 and now also guides the women’s team and serves as athletic director.
Perhaps no people are better equipped to cope with adversity than those who are intellectually and spiritually bonded in a small college community, and among them the coaches have a special role. In every practice and game, they foster togetherness, concerted effort, and grace under pressure. Those qualities saw Westmont through the fiery night.
“We were tested,” Smelley said. “The character of the students is good.” He spent Thursday night as an incident commander in Murchison Gym, the prearranged emergency evacuation center on the campus. The cinder-block structure kept a thousand men, women, and children safe from the fire. There was some discomfort from smoke that came through an open vent, Smelley said, but it was endurable. Certainly his runners had learned to persevere when their lungs were burning.
Smelley did leave the gym to check on his home in the nearby faculty housing complex. “I saw it was burning, and a fire truck was backing away,” he recalled. “I said, ‘That’s a tad disappointing.’ But we’ve had worse things happen to us.”
Smelley’s daughter, Alyssa, died of a brain tumor at age 15 in 2006. His wife, Allison, survived a bout with breast cancer a year later. The prospect of losing their home was not so daunting. Before taking his post in the gym, Smelley helped Allison and Travis, their 13-year-old son, pack up some things-mainly the pictures and DVDs that chronicled Alyssa’s life.
LeSage, who lived next door to the Smelleys, wasted no time leaving the scene with her husband, Don, and daughter, Olivia, 11. A Santa Barbara native, the tennis coach knew the destructive power of wildfires. “I was the same age as my daughter when the Coyote Fire hit,” she said. “My mom’s house burned in the Painted Cave fire.” Her mother’s apartment in the Vista del Monte retirement home is where the three LeSages spent the first night, along with their dog, cat, and parakeet. “The important thing is we’re all together,” LeSage said. “I’m not as attached to material possessions as I thought I would be.”
Foremost in Wolf’s mind were the five people in his house when the flames erupted-his visiting mother and four of his five children. His wife, Jill, was downtown with their other child. “I felt the heat and wind during soccer practice late that afternoon,” Wolf said. “When I saw the start of the fire, I knew that wasn’t a great combination of factors. I was all thumbs and left feet getting everybody out of the house. I didn’t grab any photos. The house burning down was in the category of things you don’t think are going to happen. I’m still wrestling with that.”
The Wolfs had a place to go to-the San Roque home of Johan Frisell, a former Westmont soccer player and now one of the assistant coaches. “It’s interesting how the circle of life unfolds,” Wolf said. “We are incredibly lucky. There’s been no end to the outpouring of support.”
One of the most heartwarming aspects of Wolf’s weekend was the support extended by Azusa Pacific, the host of the GSAC soccer championship. The match was supposed to be played Saturday, but APU postponed it until Monday so Wolf could get the Westmont team organized. It was a family thing. Phil Wolf, Dave’s younger brother, is Azusa’s coach. He took the Cougars to the NAIA national title last year, and they tried to impose their will Monday-Azusa outshot Westmont 15-9 in the match-but the Warriors had an unquenchable fire in their hearts, heads, and feet, and they prevailed on goals by Harrison Hill and Hugo Pizano, along with their defense backed by goalkeeper Justin Etherton‘s seven saves.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: UCSB‘s Thunderdome will be rocking Friday night (Nov. 21) when No. 1-ranked North Carolina takes on the Gaucho basketball team in front of a sell-out crowd. The only other time an Atlantic Coast Conference quintet visited Santa Barbara was in 1987, when the late Jim Valvano brought the N.C. State Wolfpack into the Dome. Led by the greatest single-game performance in Gaucho history-Brian Shaw‘s 22 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and four steals-UCSB won 96-78. Don’t expect an upset this time. Even with North Carolina’s player of the year Tyler Hansbrough a doubtful participant, the Tar Heels are loaded with NBA prospects at every position and on the bench. “Our plan is not to lose by 100 points,” Gaucho assistant Jono Metzger-Jones joked at the Round Table luncheon. On a more level plane, the Gauchos lost a thrilling 61-59 game to Utah State on Monday night. It would be fun to see UCSB’s Greg Somogyi, a 7Ê¹2Ê° freshman from Budapest, going against the Tar Heels three years from now. Somogyi, a work in progress, did some serious dunking against Utah State.
UCSB’s women got off to a nice start under new head coach Lindsay Gottlieb with a 75-66 home court victory over San Diego. Their next three will be on the road, starting tonight (Thu., Nov. 20) at Fresno State. The women’s games are broadcast on 990 AM, the Gaucho men’s on 1490 AM.
Cal and USF open the NCAA men’s soccer tournament Friday, and the winner will play the 15th-seeded Gauchos in the second round at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 25) at Harder Stadium. UCSB has received an NCAA bid for the seventh consecutive year. Harder Stadium also will be the site of Westmont‘s first-round NAIA tournament game at 7 p.m. on Saturday. The Warriors will face Holy Names University of Oakland.
The Tremblay Financial Services Santa Barbara Bowl will bring two winning community college football teams, Southwestern of Chula Vista and Pasadena, to La Playa Stadium on Saturday, November 22. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. It’s a shame that SBCC was not given a bowl berth. The Vaqueros ended their season last weekend with their sixth straight win, a 45-14 dismantling of East L.A. Unfortunately, they started their season 0-4, making it almost impossible for them to climb high enough in the polls, which are biased in favor of the teams that are ranked highly in the preseason.
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