Fighting Fire with Familiarity

Forest Lake provides sense of relief, normalcy to a team and town devastated by fires
By: Nick Pecoraro
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Travis Smith had been retired from coaching for three years. He and his wife Elizabeth were ready to enjoy life as grandparents.

So naturally, when the Forest Lake Christian athletic director LaRon Gordon asked Smith to return to the sideline to guide the 2018 varsity girls volleyball team for a fourth stint as head coach, his answer was a hard no.

But Elizabeth had a feeling. She looked at her husband inexplicably and intuitively and said, “You need to do this.”

Even after a successful season in which the Lady Falcons went 25-7 and won their first ever NorCal playoff game, Coach Smith often questioned why he returned.

“I was looking for that reason all season long,” said Smith. “Saturday, it all made sense.”

Saturday night was the Division VI NorCal semifinal, where Forest Lake hosted Paradise Adventist Academy, a team and a community that has lost nearly everything in the Camp fire that has burned over 130,000 acres in Butte County and claimed at least 48 lives since last Thursday, making it the deadliest blaze in the history of California.

After learning of the devastation of the Paradise community, Smith and the Falcons were certain there wouldn’t be a volleyball game. Why would there be?

According to Paradise head coach Jason Eyer, their school has been severely damaged and at least eight of his 12 players had lost everything in the flames, including their homes.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Eyer. “Most of our girls landed with relatives and friends spread out from Mt. Shasta all the way down to Stockton.”

Desperate for a fraction of normalcy, the Cougars, who set a program record for wins at 29-3 and recorded the school’s first Northern Section championship in any sport, decided to make the trip to Lake of the Pines Saturday to somehow play what seemed like such a meaningless game in a suddenly insignificant season.

The welcome the team and its families received upon arrival to Forest Lake was something Eyer and his players said they’ll never forget.

“All I knew was that they were planning to feed us after the game,” he said. “We walked in door and the first thing we saw lined up on the bleachers were uniforms for every girl with the correct number. They didn’t just pick random numbers, they got them all right. They gave us shorts, socks, knee pads, shoes – it was overwhelming.”

Within the 24 hours of hearing about the town’s tragedy, the Forest Lake community stepped in and stepped up in a big way, raising over $16,000 in support of its neighbors to the north.

“I was just in awe – in complete shock and amazement at what they were able to put together,” said Eyer. “Several of our players just broke down in tears. It still gets me choked up. Over-the-top generosity and compassion. We’ve never played them in any sport. I don’t know the coach or the AD. I’ve never spoken to them before – no direct connection. They were doing this for complete strangers.”

In addition to meals, uniforms and equipment, Forest Lake administration supplied each member of the Paradise team with flowers, gift bags filled with essential toiletry items and a $300 gift card after the game.

Smith said his friends and staff members may have bought out every gift card Target had in its inventory.

“Some of the gift cards said ‘Happy Anniversary,’” he laughed.

“It really meant a lot to all of us,” said Paradise senior middle Sarah Goymer. “I started bawling. They were so overwhelming with their generosity and effort they put into that.”

The generosity didn’t stop with the team. No fan or family member of the Paradise team paid admission into the game, nor did they for anything from the snack bar. Forest Lake also filled a room full of food and clothing free to anyone affiliated with Paradise Adventist.

“They treated us like family even though we’ve never met,” said Paradise senior hitter Quincey Carter. “We had no personal connection, but they took us in and made sure we were okay. It was really amazing to see their compassion and empathy. It just made us feel like there are good people out there.”

As for the game itself, the match was tied at one game apiece before Forest Lake eventually grabbed the last two sets for a 3-1 victory, advancing to Tuesday’s NorCal championship game. But remarkably, the Forest Lake gym was beyond capacity, a majority of it with Paradise supporters.

“I was blown away,” said Smith. “For them to have so much support there – I talked to people in that gym that had never seen a volleyball game in their life.”

Said Paradise senior Samantha Sayegh: “It was a hard game, but it was good. We could feel the crowd’s energy. It made it a little easier and took our minds off everything. It was the one normal thing out of all this.”

Far from normal, with the Camp fire still raging and some residents still unaccounted for, Paradise Adventist students are waiting until the Monday after Thanksgiving break to return to their schoolwork, which will resume at nearby Chico Oaks Adventist School and Chico Adventist Church.

Tuesday night, Forest Lake lost the NorCal championship match against Stone Ridge Christian in three games with members of the Paradise team making the 400-mile round trip to Merced to support their new friends.

“We just wanted to show our appreciation,” said Carter.

“They treated us like family and not total strangers,” said Sayegh. “It was nice to see how many people cared.”

While it remains unclear to Paradise residents how long before things return to normal, Smith said that the reasons his wife Elizabeth was so adamant about him returning to coaching became crystalized this weekend.

“It hit me; It was about helping people that got put in our path that needed us to come through for them,” Smith said. “Of course I wanted to win (the championship), but the pinnacle of our entire season was Saturday night.”

For additional info on how to donate to help Paradise Adventist Academy, contact Forest Lake Christian Athletic Director LaRon Gordon at 530-269-1540.