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Cardinal Newman High School rallies for its students, families affected by Santa Rosa fire

The Cardinal Newman varsity basketball team joins in prayer led by coach Tom Bonfigli before a basketball game against the Analy High School Tigers, Tuesday Nov. 21, 2017. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

KERRY BENEFIELD,

On a recent Wednesday in the St. Elizabeth Seton gym in Rohnert Park, the majority of Cardinal Newman High School’s junior class sat in groups of five and six around tables. Theology instructors Ryan Corriveau and Alice Meyer had combined six periods of classes into one, and all of those students were awaiting their assignment.

The hall is so vast Meyer used a microphone to be heard.

The assignment was simple. From a list of 30 virtues like patience and faith, each table was assigned a different word at random. Students were to write about what that virtue meant to them, where they have seen it practiced in their lives and who they know that exemplifies it.

At a back table, where Marcus Vidaurri and Brad Slender, were sitting next to each other, the word “resilience” was written in colored marker.

It was an apt choice for Vidaurri and Slender, who are among the 95 Cardinal Newman families who lost homes in the wildfires that took 23 lives in Sonoma County last month and destroyed 5,130 homes. In all, 110 students — about a sixth of the Newman campus — and three staff members lost homes in the fires, according to Principal Graham Rutherford.

Loss for the Cardinal Newman community extended to the Catholic Church-affiliated Ursuline Road campus, which suffered heavy damage: 19 classrooms, the main office, the counseling office, the library, and the baseball and soccer fields were destroyed. Twelve of Newman’s 620 students have since enrolled elsewhere.

Rutherford, a Cardinal Newman graduate, had built his office as a veritable museum of personal and professional school memorabilia. It, too, is gone.

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The gymnasium, the wrestling room and the football field went untouched but surrounding devastation is so severe that no student will be allowed back on the campus until at least January. Until then classes are scattered at four sites across the county, including Rohnert Park. Athletic events are held on the road.

Just about every virtue Corriveau and Meyer put up on the worksheet that day — including courage, integrity and gratitude — have been tested in recent weeks.

“Out of this I think I have learned to definitely just be thankful for everything that I have,” said Slender, 16. “It really just makes me appreciate everything I was blessed to have: my family, my school, my home.”

This not how Maiya Flores, 17, thought her senior year would play out. One of the most decorated athletes ever to play for the new but incredibly successful Cardinal Newman girls’ basketball program, the four-year starter is coming off a season which saw the Cardinals go 30-4 and play in the open division of the California State Championship for the first time in school history. The previous year, when Flores was a sophomore, the squad claimed a state title.

But after the fires displaced her from her home, her school and her home court last month, Flores is trying to find a new normal. Basketball helps.

“When I play, I totally ignore the facts of what happened,” she said.

When she left her home for the last time in the early morning of Oct. 9, she grabbed few belongings. Her state tournament medals, her section champion medals, they came with her.

When practice for her upcoming season started Nov. 6, Flores was in all new gear. Everything she had before was gone.

“I want to keep playing because I have nowhere else to go,” Flores said.

Flores has the calm of a shooter. Even now. Her coach, Monica Mertle, said it’s been remarkable to watch her rebound from the disaster.

“Maiya has been fantastic,” she said. “She has been a great teammate, engaged. You can’t ask for a better response.”

“I’m not the person to have a pity party,” Flores said. “It happened. It’s time to move on.”

Basketball has been there to help her do so.

“I literally lost everything. This is the one thing that I know will bring joy to the entire family.”

The school’s seniors are taking their classes at St. Joseph’s in Cotati, where classrooms have been set up in partitioned areas of the parish recreation room. Students are checked in at the door and school announcements and the morning prayer are given as students crowd onto one side of the room, some sitting on desks, some three deep by the front door.

Pennants commemorating the 2017 North Bay League champion football and girls tennis teams are pinned to the south wall.

The junior class is three miles north at St. Elizabeth Seton, the sophomores are at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Windsor, and the freshman are at Resurrection Church in Santa Rosa.

Rutherford acknowledged that separating the student body by class was not ideal, but it was the only way to get students back in class and back together.

“In the beginning, you just want to make it simple and get it going,” he said.

These days, sporting events offer the school its rare chance to reunite students of different grade levels and parents. The football team practices at El Molino and has home games at Santa Rosa Junior College. The volleyball team was invited to play at Windsor High. Newman’s teams are relying on the generosity of others and trying constantly work around scheduling pitfalls.

The football team is 9-2 overall and went 5-0 in the North Bay League to win the title behind the play of quarterback Beau Barrington and wide receivers Nikko Kitchen and Kyle Carinalli, all seniors and all of whom lost their homes in the fires. The Cardinals will face league rival Rancho Cotate Friday night in the North Coast Section Div. 3 semifinals.

“I’m amazed how well they’ve taken that challenge and worked through that (loss),” Rutherford said of the entire student body. “It’s made it clear that the school community is the people, not the building.”

At Geyserville New Tech Academy, the hardcourt sounds were familiar but the surroundings were not.

Longtime boys’ basketball coach Tom Bonfigli was running his defending North Bay League champs through the paces. The whistle blew incessantly and the coach barked his instructions. It was almost 9 p.m. on a school night and the squad was in the Moody Lane gym that has served as its practice court since the fires.

Marcus Vidaurri, 17 and a guard for the Cardinals, is thankful for the space and the routine.

“Basketball is huge right now,” he said.

When Vidaurri left his home on Newgate Court in Fountaingrove just after midnight on Oct. 9, he grabbed a photo album with pictures of his older sister, Marina and him together. A better-than-4.0 student, he also grabbed his school books.

“Honestly, there was definitely a thought that I’d be out of my house, maybe a few days, but I definitely felt like I’d be back,” he said.

His house burned to the ground hours later.

Since that night, Vidaurri and his parents have stayed with relatives and are now at a short-term rental. Vidaurri is commuting to classes in Rohnert Park and driving north to Geyserville every night for practice.

“(Basketball) has always been a big part of my life, but it definitely keeps my mind off things,” he said. “I think it’s almost become more important to me because it’s helping me, I guess, get a sense of normalcy. I’ve been trying my best to stay level-headed at home and at school but I think on the court, it’s a lot easier.”

Vidaurri’s mom, Margaret Marquez, said it’s obvious the relief and outlet basketball has provided her son.

“It’s been tremendous,” she said. “I can’t think of anything that would help him heal as quickly, having the structure, having the peers. Having the coach focus fully on whatever drill they are working on and whatever play they are learning lets them get out of their mind and be present in the moment.”

Brad Slender doesn’t know why he was awake that night as the firestorm advanced.

“I like to think for whatever reason, something kept me up,” he said.

He started seeing texts and social media exchanges between Newman students, including Vidaurri, that they were evacuating their homes in Fountaingrove. Slender and his mom Carol lived in the Overlook at Fountaingrove on the development’s western flank.

“I woke up my mom and mentioned to her that there was a fire coming,” he said. “At the time there was no power so we weren’t able to watch the news.”

The severity of it all was unclear, so Slender and his mom grabbed their cat and got in the car to investigate.

“As soon as we pulled out of the complex itself, three cop cars closed off the street where we had just come from,” he said.

Slender immediately started calling his family. Both sets of grandparents lived in Fountaingrove.

“If I didn’t call my dad’s parents, they wouldn’t have woken up,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about what could have happened.”

Apart from his cat, Slender had no belongings with him.

“My mom had a lot of memorable stuff that had been passed down throughout our family like from when she was a little girl,” he said. “And pictures that we had throughout the house of course burned. Stuff that had been handed down.”

Girls’ basketball coach Monica Mertle said that if a visitor didn’t know, it wouldn’t be obvious which of her players lost her home in the fire.

“Basketball is a way for Maiya to forget about everything that is going on,” she said.

“I don’t worry about her here,” she said. “She has incredible support, she’s incredibly tough and she loves to play.”

Maiya’s parents, Mark Flores and Stefanie McMurtrie, built the house down the street from the Vidaurri’s on Newgate Circle from the ground up. They raised Maiya and her 9-year-old sister Macie there.

They are sad and grieving, but they are also moving on.

“I worry about it and I feel bad for them about what happened but what are you going to do about it?” Mark Flores said. “In life you are going to get punched in the face every once in awhile. Are you going to feel sorry for yourself? You keep plugging away.”

And Mark Flores reminds his kids that for better or worse, they are not alone.

“There is a whole community dealing with this,” he said.

“It’s the new normal,” McMurtrie said.

McMurtrie is a third generation Santa Rosan. She said there was little debate in her family about whether or not they would rebuild. Her immediate challenge is finding housing where the family of four can be together, especially for Maiya’s final months at home before she goes to college.

Right now, she and the girls are staying with McMurtrie’s mom and Mark is staying with his mother.

“I miss my house, but it’s OK,” McMurtrie said. “There are things that hit you. A lot of it is just stuff, ultimately, that can be replaced.”

The rebuilding project that lies ahead.

“It’s ‘OK, this is happening.’ You kind of get a second chance,” she said. “You are feeling very grateful, for your family, your community.”

Both Mertle and Bonfigli are also teachers at Newman, so they keep a watchful eye on their students as well as their athletes.

“The best way to handle teenagers, you check in,” Bonfigli said. “You ask them how things are at home, how are things at school. And when I talk to them I never ask them about basketball. I know how they are in basketball.”

Bonfigli acknowledged that his usual approach can be tricky with a kid who no longer has a home, and, for the time being at least, has been displaced at school, too. The veteran coach understands because his life has been upended, too.

“I don’t have a gym, I don’t have a classroom. I have been here 41 years and I feel really unsettled,” he said.

Rutherford said students aren’t letting the fire destruction get them down. They’re showing up to class and working hard. They’re also expressing gratitude and wonder over the support they’ve received from the community, including the parishes that provided the temporary classroom space.

“The students would be the first to say that their sense of appreciation is heightened. Most of the people who lost their homes have been among the most thankful,” Rutherford said.

For Newman’s student athletes, the bonds with teammates, the routines of practice and a competition are a tether to normalcy.

“I think the most important thing is to get in tune with players and how they are feeling. We address it as needed,” Mertle said. “But when we are on the basketball court, it’s basketball time.”

One bright spot amid the devastation that hit Newman’s 53-year-old campus: It’s gym, and all the memories it holds, was spared.

David Vidaurri, Marcus’ father, has watched his son play basketball and daughter, Marina, play volleyball for Newman there for years.

“If the gym had gone down, that would be a different story,” he said. “That gym just brings so many people together.”

Brad Slender’s mom, Carol, said she is immensely grateful that her son has teammates to be around. Those friends have taken to picking up Slender at his new temporary home in Windsor and helping him get where he needs to be.

“Cardinal Newman, they are a great community. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it, especially now,” she said. “I think that is really helping him through this, just their friendship and supportiveness of each other.”

A driving rain continued outside the gym in Geyserville as the boy’s basketball squad wrapped up their practice earlier this month.

Bonfigli had blown the whistle for the last time and the players started to change into sweats to keep dry on the walk outside. Before they left, Bonfigli called their attention to three boxes at the end of the bench. Inside were their 2017-18 uniforms.

After the seniors got their picks, Vidaurri went to the boxes and selected No. 4. Slender picked No. 2.

In a season in which everything familiar seems to have vanished and everything in their lives is new, laying hands on a uniform that represents both tradition and a new beginning was special.

“It’s a big moment,” Vidaurri said.

“It’s kind of like a gift you know? After losing everything this is a nice little present — a reward for making varsity basketball,” Slender said. “We just got to look forward to the season, it’s going to be a good one.”

The families lament what they lost, but they are thankful for what they have.

Stefanie McMurtrie cuts herself a break when she suddenly breaks down in tears in the car.

“I let them come,” she said. “They will pass. They are needed. You need to grieve.”

She and her husband are trying to show the way for their kids, vowing to bounce back as they cope with an uncertain future.

“It’s far from perfect, but we have to navigate the best we can,” Mark Flores said. “Not only the Cardinal Newman community, but the entire community, they are fractured. We’ll make something good out of it. Whatever it is, we’ll make something good out of it.”

Marquez said she has lived through the death of her mother, so she knows the grieving process and understands emotions can come in waves. She’s looking forward to a Thanksgiving where she can slow things down. Even if just for a day.

And she wants to play. She’s already put in a request that her family’s day, whatever it brings, will include a game of Wiffle ball.

“We just need to go play,” she said.

“I don’t want to think about my personal property list. I don’t want to think about what percentage I might get for my dwelling. I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “I’m thinking about how precious this time is.”

“This time is limited, this is not guaranteed,” she said. “You really need to enjoy each other. It doesn’t take much.”

Staff Writer Eloisa Gonzalez contributed reporting. You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”