A Northern California high school football team has lost in a championship game one year after a deadly fire destroyed most of their town, including the homes of most players and coaches.

Paradise High School lost to Sutter Union High School 20-7 Saturday night in the Northern Section Division III championship game. The game comes just more than one year after the fire in Paradise burned roughly 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people.

In the end zone after the game, senior running back Lukas Hartley cried with his teammates, telling reporters “I didn’t cry this bad when my house burned down.” He said he plans to be a firefighter after he finishes high school.

“I’m just proud of all my brothers and thankful to God for putting me on this path,” he said.

Rick Prinz is the head coach of Paradise High School. He had planned to retire but since the fire, he decided to stay and contin
Rick Prinz is the head coach of Paradise High School. He had planned to retire but since the fire, he decided to stay and continue to coach football. (Elizabeth Lee/VOA News)

Friday night tradition

Paradise coach Rick Prinz told the team after the game he was proud of his players.

“No one really knows how much they truly battled just to be at practice and to do what they did,” Prinz said. “They lost everything they owned a year ago. They are all living in different places. And to pull it together like this and help our community come together is truly amazing.”

Most of the people who lived in Paradise have moved away. But many have returned on Friday nights to watch the football team’s remarkable season.

The high school has a football tradition, consistently fielding competitive teams. The school produced Jeff Maehl, a wide receiver who played for the University of Oregon in the 2011 BCS national championship game and later played for two NFL teams.

Last year, the school was 8-2 and preparing to host a home playoff game when the wildfire swept through the town. The school survived, but nearly every player and coach on the team lost their homes. The team forfeited the playoff game, ending their season.

A season to heal

The team almost didn’t have a 2019 season. But the players were determined to play.

Erica Browe, 38, lost her home in the fire. She now lives in Redding. At first, her two teenage sons went to a new school. But she said they were miserable and their grades suffered. They now live in Paradise with some friends so they can attend their old high school and play football.

Returning to Paradise made a big difference in her sons’ lives, she said, and the team’s success encouraged the community nestled along a ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“It gives hope back to the ridge that we can still be strong and stick together,” she said.

Paradise High School finished the regular season undefeated, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 469-73. But their magical season ended Saturday on a rainy, cold night.

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