One month and one day after the most destructive wildfire in California history shattered their world, in a home game on another school’s field, Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa football players took a fresh, triumphant step Friday night.
They opened the North Coast Section Division 3 playoffs with an emphatic 49-7 victory over Kennedy-Fremont. The win, at Santa Rosa High, propelled the Cardinals into next week’s quarterfinals and gave them another layer of welcome distance from the terror of the Tubbs Fire.
“It almost kind of feels like a new season now,” senior quarterback Beau Barrington said. “We’re back to our routine, and we’re playing better. It’s just football again.”
In some ways, it’s much more than football.
Barrington was one of five Cardinal Newman players whose families lost their homes in the fire, which ravaged Santa Rosa in the early-morning hours of Oct. 9. In all, about 100 students, faculty, staff and coaches lost their homes.
Plus, approximately half the Cardinal Newman campus burned down — including 20 classrooms, the library, main administration building and baseball field. School officials plan to complete the semester with students separated by grade level at four parishes in the area.
The seniors convene at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cotati. This week, Barrington and his classmates arrived each day to find the league pennant pinned to the wall.
Cardinal Newman won the North Bay League title by defeating rival Rancho Cotate on Nov. 4.
“I think we got our pride back,” Barrington said.
So, on Friday night, the second-seeded Cardinals and their fans enthusiastically took over Santa Rosa High. ESPN cameras roamed the sideline before the game; the network is documenting Cardinal Newman’s season in the wake of the fire.
Players from both teams stood silently on their respective hash marks as Newman Principal Graham Rutherford offered a brief, pregame prayer. He included a reference to the “rebuilding and recovery of the region.”
In the crowd, several students showed up in onesie pajamas, this week’s designated theme. And Leticia LeBerthon, whose son, Chauncey, is a junior wide receiver for the Cardinals, wore a white “Newman Strong” T-shirt under Chauncey’s letterman’s jacket.
LeBerthon and her family evacuated for a week after the fire, then returned home. They did so with mixed emotions, given the many friends who didn’t have that option.
“It definitely feels significant,” LeBerthon said of Friday night’s playoff opener. “We’ve all been through so much, and we’re just really excited to be here.”
Cardinal Newman (8-2) weathered some early sluggishness in its first-round game. Barrington scored an early touchdown, only to see Kennedy quarterback Zedric Petitt Brown respond with a 73-yard TD pass to Alonzo Floriolli.
Then, in the second quarter, the Cardinals unleashed a torrent of big plays: Barrington to Kyle Carinalli for a 49-yard touchdown; Tanner Mendoza with a short scoring run; Barrington with a majestic 51-yard strike to Carinalli for another TD and Mendoza with another score on the ground.
Cardinal Newman led 35-7 by halftime and coasted from there.
The victory sets up a quarterfinal game next week against the winner of Saturday night’s Encinal-Analy matchup. If the Cardinals advance again, they could meet Rancho Cotate for the third time this season in the semifinals.
That would add another measure of drama to Cardinal Newman’s compelling journey.
“You get one shot, and if you don’t complete it, you’re done and that’s the end of the season,” said Carinalli, the wide receiver. “There are probably 18 to 20 seniors out here who are just dying to keep this season going.”
Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @ronkroichick