Coach Alisandro Flores followed behind his soccer club team’s 16-passenger bus in a van as he and the team returned from a Phoenix tournament.
The little caravan neared the north side of the Grapevine on Interstate 5, getting close to home and about to descend into the central San Joaquin Valley on March 24. But then the parent driving the little bus, a 2003 Ford F-450, slowed and stopped on the side of the busy freeway. Smoke drifted from the engine compartment.
“He heard a pop and pulled over,” Flores said.
Then the engine caught fire, engulfing the formerly trustworthy people hauler. Nobody was injured. But for Flores and the players of the U-16 club team based in Fresno, the result proved devastating. Not only did they lose their mode of transportation but many players on Malibu FC lost all their gear.
Ezequiel Chavez, one of four Sanger players on the team, even lost his Sanger High issued iPad in the resulting blaze. The fire did indeed eat his homework. Chavez played on the Apache varsity squad that just about won the Valley championship earlier this year.
The fire also caused Flores to cancel all of Malibu FC’s games until Memorial Day weekend when the team plays at a Los Angeles tournament. In addition to balls and other gear, the student athletes lost their uniforms, soccer shoes and clothing. And because the athletes come from modest backgrounds, parents have established a GoFundMe account for the team under Malibu FC Soccer.
“I would have never guessed that could happen,” Flores said last week. “It had a recent tune-up, we got new tires. I don’t know.”
Flores said he had the bus eight years and that it had taken the team to games in places as far-flung as Portland, Ore., Las Vegas and even San Antonio, Texas — “twice.”
Flores has coached the team the past 14 years. He’s an English teacher at Central High School.
He said the team took the tragedy hard. “I have never met a group of kids (like them),” he said. “(As they watched the bus burn) all of them hugged each other, crying. The next day, everybody brought extra stuff for those who had lost their gear.
“I bought three pairs of shoes.”
Flores said he also received help from Pro Soccer in Clovis and another store, Soccer City in Modesto. He said through all the setbacks the team wants to compete. “It’s a pretty good team,” he said. “The kids just need to gel. We were in the top bracket at the Phoenix tournament.”
One of the reasons for going to Phoenix was for its status as a college showcase, where coaches at that next level can observe the mostly high school freshmen for potential later recruitment.