Merryville football team wins one for disaster-weary community
Published 9:20 am Saturday, September 2, 2023
With the Tiger Island Fire still fresh on their minds, players, students, families and community members got a break Thursday when the Merryville Panthers suited up for their 2023 season opener and offered a brief distraction.
Just days before, the game was in doubt as the fire had consumed more than 33,000 acres.
The Panthers didn’t disappoint and earned a 38-6 win over North Central.
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“I usually tell my kids to go out and play for themselves and get a win for themselves,” Merryville head coach Bart Coody said. “But I told them this week I would really appreciate it if they win one for this community because we have been through a lot this week.
“I was just glad to get to play. I was just relieved that we were playing football.”
An hour before the game, Greg Manino was busy cooking some mouth-watering hamburgers for the concession stand. He said the community is strong and helped each other make it through the last week.
“Merryville, buddy, that is a community,” Manino said. “They come together.
“Everybody is tight-knit. Everybody came together from
Singer, Merryville and DeRidder, helping out because it was almost to DeRidder. We have a lot of people out there. It is a good community. I guess they are still putting hot spots out. I don’t know how close it got to here, it was pretty close. It was scary. Merryville loves their football. They love their sports all over the place. Once the kids had a chance to do something, Merryville is not a big place, they come together. We support all of our sports. We are doing good. It is nice to be here and at home.”
Manino said it got dicey at one point when the fire nearly reached his mother’s home in the Junction area.
“I tell you it has been heck,” Manino said. “My mom, she is seven miles away from here at Junction, and it got kind of scary there one night for us. If it had jumped one other road, it would have been in her place.”
While it is only the first game of the season, first-year Merryville Principal Kara Winn said it was a big boost to the community.
“After what happened last Thursday with us having to move the jamboree to a different school, then having to pull out of the jamboree, it is a big deal to the boys to be able to play out here tonight,” Winn said. “It is a big deal to the community.
“This is what they look forward to on Thursday evening. We are just glad we got to come out here and didn’t have to move. The students have been pretty resilient, honestly. We had a few days where we were out. We checked on the kids, checked on the schools, we made sure everybody was all right. We are glad that we were able to come back. We were able to start learning on Tuesday. It was good to be back to some normalcy.”
Southwest Louisiana has been a hot spot for natural disasters in the last three years, including a pair of hurricanes, plus a major flood in Lake Charles, in 2020 and the winter storm in Feb. 2021.
The fire began on Tuesday, Aug. 22, between Merryville and Singer along Hwy. 110. The severe heat wave and drought conditions, high winds plus fallen trees from the hurricanes three years ago helped to fuel the fire to the point that a mandatory evacuation was given for Merryville on Thursday, Aug. 24.
“That was a humongous shock,” Winn said. “I got the call from the assistant superintendent (Cord Ensminger) and superintendent (Larry Hollie) at 5 p.m. on Thursday evening.
“I had just left campus. We thought that we were in the clear Thursday afternoon. I was actually on campus Wednesday and Thursday working. Around 2 p.m., the superintendent called me and said there was a shift in the winds and just be mindful. Around 4 p.m., I went out to the practice field, and you could start seeing the smoke coming back. We came back up here, called some of the staff and we tried to move school buses. There is not much that you can do but just sit back and pray that nothing happens to the school.”
In many small towns, the local school is the center of the community, and it is no different in Merryville.
“The school is at the center of the community,” Winn said. “Without the school, nothing else goes on.
“The school and community have been working together. We were in contact from the start last Tuesday, anything they can do to support us. We were able to get our students home that evening. Acting Chief of Police Brister has been contacting me, giving me updates about the school when we had the mandatory evacuation. They (the community) have been wonderful. They have been taking care of their people. I saw that they were handing out food, and they were handing out ice and making sure the community had what they needed.”
The team resumed practice on Monday when the evacuation order was rescinded, and students returned to school Tuesday.
Junior running back Jerimaya Robinson was one of many stars in the game, scoring four touchdowns and recovering a fumble on defense.
“It was amazing, the best feeling of my life,” Robinson said. “You can’t get a better feeling than that.
“(It has been) really rough. It feels so good. I can’t describe the feeling.”
Winn said the school is working with students who have not been able to return yet and that some people are still on high alert as crews from multiple agencies continue to put out the remaining hot spots and flare-ups.
“We still had some faculty members the past couple of days that were on high alert,” Winn said. “The areas that they live in have been significantly impacted.
“We had a couple of different roads right outside of Merryville where it was just absolute devastation. So they have been on high alert when there is flare-ups. If they have to go tend to their property, that is fine, go take care of what you need to take care of. So some of them are on high alert, which is to be expected.”