The Cinderella story of the West Coast Jamboree (held earlier this week) had to be the Middletown girls. After what happened to their town in September, it’s amazing they even played in the tournament.
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Despite the difficulties in recovering from a horrific wildfire to hit their community, not only did the Middletown Mustangs play in this year’s West Coast Jamboree, they made it to the championship game of the Quartz Division where the school with an enrollment of 439 lost 57-47 to a Concord school with over four times as many students.
“We gave one away in the second half when we went 5 for 16 from the line,” said Middletown head coach Anthony Bazzano.
Middletown (7-4) may have lost the game but in making it to the title game was the talk of the tournament.
When fire swept down Cobb Mountain and destroyed 1,280 homes in the Lake County town this past September, one place that was spared but singed in a few spots was Middletown High School.
The school may have been kept out of harm’s way but a countless number of student-athletes and their families were devastated by the catastrophe that hit the tight-knit community.
The Mustangs’ sports programs that were going on at the time were all affected but the girls’ basketball team, whose season hadn’t yet started, was hit hard as well.
According to third-year head coach Bazzano, everyone on the team and coaching staff at all levels was impacted personally or had family or friends that the fire hit with a hardship.
Five girls in the program, including three members of the varsity squad, and one coach, lost everything.
Kaleigh Alves, or “Smiley” as Bazzano and her teammates like to call her, lost everything. Her family is currently in a rental home and in the process of rebuilding.
The Mustangs’ point guard and all league soccer player who wears No. 2 on the basketball court has still been a floor general and team leader despite what happened. She exemplifies the town motto and Twitter hashtag #MiddletownStrong that became so popular during and after what was called the Valley Fire.
“That’s why we call her Smiley. Nothing can affect her game on the court. She’s a bulldog,” said Bazzano, a packaging and operations manager in the wine industry when not coaching the girls.
Isabel Montalvan, a junior guard who wears No. 5, has been the most impacted according to Bazzano, who calls her “a great kid that’s thoroughly enjoyable to coach and who wants to learn.”
Her family lived on Cobb Mountain where the destruction by the fire was most widespread. After moving a few times in just over two months, including being housed in a closed resort over 35 miles away, the family is now in a rental in Lower Lake, around 20 miles over the hill and at the south end of Clear Lake.
The third girl whose family home went up in smoke is senior guard Paige Duncan, and No. 13 on the Mustangs roster comes from a family that knows a lot about fires. Her father is Cal Fire Battalion Chief Paul Duncan.
While her father was up trying to save a school in Cobb, Paige was home with her sister Rosie, a sophomore at Middletown. As the flames got perilously close to the Duncan home in Hidden Valley, she got her sister in the car and punched the gas pedal to get through flames, but according to Bazzano it wasn’t before she had grabbed an award medal she had gotten from a tournament and dashed out the door.
Tony Hart, the JV coach and whose daughter Alyssa Hart plays for him, lost an old-time family home just outside Hidden Valley.
Middletown had already been signed up to play in the Jamboree prior to the fire, but traveling to Contra Costa County and the expense of staying overnight for three days and feeding a roster of 10 players was not the biggest priority at the school or in town.
When the Hoops4Girls partnership that manages the West Coast Jamboree for the non-profit’s board of directors learned of the team’s situation, and Bazzano telling them Middletown was determined to make the trip, the Jamboree decided to take action.
CIF North Coast Section Commissioner Gil Lemmon was contacted and gave his support for the idea of finding a way to help the team. At the time, the NCS themselves were beginning fundraising to help Middletown athletics.
The Diablo Valley Tourism Business Improvement District that is the sponsor for the Jamboree’s host hotel members of the district, readily agreed to pay just over half of the cost of the team’s accommodations. That was followed by a unanimous vote of the Jamboree’s board of directors to cover the cost of the remaining hotel bill for the girls and the coaches.
SportStars Magazine hosted the girls for a pizza night, and another anonymous donor provided additional meal and expense money.
“We can’t say thank you enough,” said Bazzano, whose daughter Miah Bazzano (No. 3) is a starting point guard. “The support from the Diablo Valley Tourism folks and the additional support had a huge impact.”
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend