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One eve of the big game, high school copes with deaths of three coaches

November 21, 1997

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. (AP) _ On the eve of the big high school playoff game, excitement ran high in this working-desert town of stucco mini-malls between affluent Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage.

Then came shocking news: Three popular football coaches for Cathedral City High School were killed when their Jeep Wrangler went off a remote road in Thursday’s early-morning darkness.

The accident left the city and the school’s 2,000 students numb. Crisis counselors were called in. Students walked the halls in a daze. Some called in sick. The Friday night playoff game was hastily rescheduled for Saturday afternoon.

For the 44 young players, many from lower middle-class families, the accident stripped them of friends and confidantes and left them struggling to prepare for the most important game of their lives.

``Everybody was getting all pumped up for the game and it was, like, I couldn’t believe it,″ 17-year-old senior Tim Bohan, a linebacker on the varsity squad, said Friday. ``How could this happen? I didn’t know what to think. We were real close. We were all good friends.″

The news was broken to the players Thursday at 9:30 a.m. with the team gathered in the school auditorium.

Principal Jim Siegler outlined the basics: Freshman head coach and math teacher Steven Wilson, 44, of Palm Springs, and assistant freshman coaches Robert Grenville, 35, of Desert Hot Springs and Erik Metz, 24, of Cathedral City were dead. Grenville was a school security guard and Metz taught physical education.

Police would fill in the rest. The convertible Jeep ran off a road and rolled over several times at about 3:30 a.m. Nine unopened beer cans and two empty ones were found, but it wasn’t known whether the beer was consumed or leaked in the crash.

Metz was the driver, and his blood will be tested for alcohol as a matter of routine.

All were wearing seat belts, but the force of the crash was just too much.

The crash is still under investigation and it was still unknown for sure why the coaches were out so late. But several teachers speculated it was a celebration. Metz’s birthday was Friday; Wilson’s would have been Monday.

After the principal spoke, varsity Coach Rich Baughman said a few words, but his remarks couldn’t ease the pain.

The players started weeping. Adam Pennington, a varsity linebacker, gathered his teammates and they prayed.

Most of the varsity team members had played for Wilson.

``It certainly knocked our feet out right from under us,″ Baughman said. ``It just made it impossible to focus on anything to do with the game.″

``We’ve got pretty wide community support,″ Baughman said. ``There are lot of rivalries here in the (Coachella) Valley. We’re a little bit isolated in that respect (125 miles east of Los Angeles). So what happens in one community really has an effect on another. It stays in the cauldron.″

But preparing for the game has now proved difficult. Practice Thursday was at first nearly impossible.

``I don’t know how we’re going to handle it, frankly,″ Baughman said. ``On the pregame day, we normally go over special teams and stuff. It’s kind of a ragged day to begin with, doing all the unusual things in the game. Then, to have this happen _ we could hardly focus.″

But then the kids started walking around, doing their stretching exercises and getting into the routine.

``It just felt good to be out there, to do something, to prepare for something,″ the coach said.

And so, Nate Davenport, 17, a star tight end who is being recruited by big colleges, is going to go about his business as best he can in what could be his last high school game Saturday.

``We’re going to have a meeting pretty soon to talk, just trying to overcome this right here and still come through,″ Davenport said.

But there are plenty of tough times ahead. Among them: the awards banquet for the players, originally set for next week, but now postponed.

``It struck me this morning that normally we give out awards to each level, varsity, JV and freshmen,″ Baughman said. ``But there aren’t any freshmen coaches to give out awards. That’s when it’s going to hit.″

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