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Through The Fire

Oct. 26, 2007

Story by ESPN.com's Graham Hays

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Unlike more than a million residents of Southern California who were displaced this week by raging wildfires that incinerated buildings and choked the air with ash and smoke, the roughly two dozen members of the University of San Diego women's soccer team knew ahead of time they weren't going to be in their homes this weekend.

That didn't make it much easier for them to leave.

"We understood why we had to leave, but we almost felt like we were abandoning everyone back in San Diego," redshirt junior Amy Epsten said from the team hotel in Portland on Wednesday, as No. 17 San Diego rested before Thursday's nationally televised showdown against West Coast Conference rival and sixth-ranked Portland.

"It's tough sitting here in a hotel room in Portland and putting on CNN national news and basically watching our hometowns burn down, you know?"

Epsten is a San Diego native who starred at Academy of Our Lady of Peace in high school and stayed home for college, earning WCC Freshman of the Year honors her first year and leading the team in goals through its first 15 games this season. Her parents' house stayed out of the literal line of fire as high winds early in the week made the task of containment nearly impossible, and so it quickly became a point of refuge for other family members from all over the county who found themselves part of the massive evacuation, including an uncle who lost his home to the flames.

The families of at least three other Toreros players from the San Diego area were forced from their homes at some point during the week as part of the evacuations. Thankfully, all three homes appeared to be out of danger by the time conditions improved ever so slightly on Wednesday, but for players like senior Leigh Ann Robinson, Monday night brought news that her parents were evacuating just a few hours before she had to leave the relative safety of campus and get on a plane for the flight to Portland.

"It's hard to leave, especially when we have friends and family whose houses have burned down," Robinson said. "So it's just, you almost feel like, 'OK, I'm going somewhere safer, but you have fun with that.'"

Natural disasters, like the numerous major fires which encroached on the San Diego area, touch entire communities. That's not to equate the experiences of those who lost homes or loved ones with those of residents who will get through the event with nothing more long-lasting than frazzled nerves. But when smoke shuts down the city's major I-5 artery for a period of time, Qualcomm Stadium becomes a mass evacuation site instead of a football stadium and schools like the University of San Diego cancel classes for the week, everyone on the ground becomes a part of it.

Leigh Ann Robinson and San Diego's seniors provided much-needed leadership.

The images are jarring enough for people tuning in from afar, but even for residents of an area that has a history of fires burning out of control, the beast rampaging over the landscape this week was like a beloved family pet turning on its owners.

"I grew up there and then I went to school there," Robinson explained. "It's just a fun place. You have the beach, you have the mountains. ... There are different types of people. The weather is usually really good -- besides when the winds are blowing the Santa Ana. But for the most part, it's just a really peaceful, nice, happy place."

All of which made it that much tougher for members of the women's soccer team to find themselves helpless television viewers. Concerns about potentially diminishing airport accessibility and the poor air quality near the practice field forced the team to leave for Portland on Tuesday morning, much sooner than it would typically have departed for a Pacific Northwest swing.

Separated geographically from friends and family at home, the players, especially the San Diego natives, are spending much of their free time in Oregon gathered together around televisions tuned to CNN, watching the headlines and working their cell phones for firsthand updates and assurances.

"It's crazy," said senior Vanessa Vella, another player whose family had to briefly evacuate its home. "I mean, it's these huge news channels that you watch for these huge stories, and all of a sudden, they're showing this place that is five miles away from your home that is burning. It just doesn't seem real."

And then someone wants you to play a soccer game?

"I just think that it's pretty hard to focus on a game when you kind of are gluing yourself to the news and calling your families," Epsten said before the Portland game. "I think it hasn't really hit us that we have a huge game. I think it did before the fire started. But we'll start to get into it the next day or so.

"I guess we have to," she added with a rueful laugh.

In a movie, Epsten's words might have cued the cut to a montage of inspired plays and wondrous goals the following night as the Toreros put the distractions aside and came up with the game of their lives to beat their rivals and make life wonderful again just in time for the closing credits. The reality was a 4-0 loss in which the visitors mustered little offense and played as though their minds were understandably elsewhere.

The fires in southern California have been front-and-center in the national news.

Long in the shadow of conference rivals Santa Clara and Portland, two of the true giants in women's college soccer, despite their seven NCAA Tournament appearances since 1996, the Toreros wanted to control their own soccer destiny this season. After playing current No. 1 UCLA to a standstill in a 0-0 tie in September, San Diego beat Santa Clara 2-0 to open conference play and stood at 11-1-3 entering the game at Portland.

A win against the Pilots, who beat the Toreros in each of the past three seasons, would have given the team from San Diego sole possession of first place in the WCC with its two toughest conference games out of the way. And in a year when the region is loaded with potential NCAA Tournament seeds, given the strong starts by both UCLA and USC, San Diego may need an outright conference title (there is no postseason tournament in the WCC) to convince the NCAA selection committee to provide a reasonable draw in a bracket that often seems to value geography and travel costs over equality.

With a proven finisher in Epsten, a defense that had allowed only eight goals in 15 games before Portland's outburst and a healthy RPI, the Toreros still have the makings of a postseason contender. It was just unfortunate that so much hinged on a game during this week of all weeks.

Winning and losing matters, or we wouldn't play the games. But as Boston Red Sox star Manny Ramirez, of all possible modern philosophers, reminded us last week, losing a game should not be the end of the world. And whether they left Portland with a win or a loss on the field, the San Diego players already knew that for at least a few days this week, their lives revolved more around CNN than ESPN.

"We've been excited for this game for a while," Robinson said prior to the game. "I think we'll be able to pump each other up for the game, but right now, it's hard to focus on the soccer game because there is so much going on at home."