By Al Mattei


The field hockey team at San Diego Scripps Ranch (Calif.) had 25 opponents in 2003 and vanquished every one of them.

But none of the opposing teams on the Falcons' schedule were as big a threat as what happened to several areas of California in late October and early November of 2003.

Continuing dry weather over the course of several months left local vegetation suceptible to brush fires, and a number of such fires occurred at the same time in San Diego, Los Angeles, and several areas of central California.

It was in San Diego County where the fires struck closest to populated areas. Smoke from the fires cast a haze in the air, and kept the elderly and very young inside for days.

Everything -- including schools -- went on hold for a week in early November. No practices, no classes, and no games. Scripps Ranch had won its first 20 games of the season before the fires, but had to take a forced break when the fires got uncomfortably close to the school and the neighborhood of Scripps Ranch.

"A number of sports were affected around San Diego County," said Scripps Ranch head coach Jane Morrill. "Even the ones that play inside like water polo and volleyball. But field hockey lucked out because we had three or four days of down-time built into the schedule if we had to use them."

But word spread that the fires had begun consuming homes. Five players on the Scripps Ranch team lost their houses, which lent a highly emotional tinge to the situation.

"The players are faring very well, but unfortunately it's going to hit them more around the holidays rather than anything else," Morrill says.

Donations came from everywhere. Team members and students assembled baskets of necessities for the affected players. The Longstreth field hockey equipment distribution company sent replacement equipment for the five players who lost their houses. learned, however, that no goalkeeper equipment had to be sent from Longstreth. This was extremely good fortune for goalkeeper Haley Exner, a young woman who was on the verge of setting the National Federation record for career shutouts, that not only did her family not lose her house, but that she didn't have to break in an entire set of goalkeeper equipment in less than a week.

Evidently, given the fact that Scripps Ranch was able to come off their week-long hiatus with a 6-0 win over University of San Diego (Calif.) High School, and won all their games in the Division II playoffs, the fire didn't have any short-term negatives.

"Well, you see their ups and downs when you're that close to them," Morrill says, "but the kids are really tight. If anything, it has made them closer."

Ultimately, the Falcons overcame, not only coming through with an undefeated season, but earning a No. 5 ranking nationwide, making the year one the players will remember for the rest of their lives.