Cardinal Newman overcomes adversity, gains championship berth

- Cardinal Newman High School, ravaged by the Tubbs fire seven weeks ago, is sticking to its winning ways despite adversity.

Friday night, under the lights at Santa Rosa Junior College, the varsity football team scored in the final minutes to snatch the semi-final NCS playoff game from league rival Rancho Cotate. 

Families poured from the grandstands onto the field in excitement. 

In October's disaster, nine junior varsity and varsity players lost their homes, and the fire-damaged campus closed, throwing the season into some turmoil.

"It's been bizarre, right? I think we can all agree on that," said head football Coach Paul Cronin, noting that the season was halted for two weeks by fire and poor air quality, then resumed with games, practices and classes all moved to off-site locations. 

The wildland fire that swept in from Napa County devoured entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods, half of Newman's campus, and the homes of more than 100 students, about one-sixth of the student body. 
Yet Cronin is having a hard time letting this season end.  

"Every year you lose some kid you really love, and some parents you really love," he said. “But this is something you'll always remember, you'll always reflect back on this team and how close they became because of the tragedy." 

Cardinal Newman is now one game away from repeating as division champion next weekend. The team will play the winner of the Marin Catholic vs. Bishop O'Dowd semi-final. Newman is a perennial favorite on the football field, but this season brought new lessons, on adversity. 

"They'll be talking about this, and writing their college essays about it," said parent Bob Stoesser, describing how football has helped his family and his player son, cope with losing their Mark West Springs home. 

"It's very therapeutic for everybody, and having Friday night to come out here, and have the team keep winning, it's great," said Stoesser. "Because everything was pretty much taken away. They had football to go back on. So it was a blessing." 

Athletic Director Jerry Bonfigli agreed, the fire will be a huge part of school history, but sports will help students heal. 

"Once you get on the football field, it's a football game. And it's the same for all our athletes. It's a release for them, which has been really good," said Bonfigli. "I think it's going to make them stronger. It already has."   

Linebacker Dino Kahauelio touched on how teammates literally gave each other the shirts off their backs. 

"Some people stayed at each other's houses. People got clothes from other teammates, anything to help, food, water," he said. 

"It's just family, and it's always going to be remembered in the history of sports in Sonoma County. This is team is so much closer than any I've been a part of, it's crazy."

Coach Cronin admits this season will be particularly difficult to let his seniors move on.

"After what they had to overcome, it's really special. I have a soft spot in my heart for them," he said.  

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