MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — It was a normal day at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School on Nov. 28, 2016, for Joey Renfro and Derek Martin. When the day ended, a devastating wildfire led to 14 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage.
The Renfro and Martin families lost their homes.
Eighteen months later, as G-P students went through graduation exercises Thursday in Gatlinburg, a smaller ceremony took place at Topgolf in Nashville as Renfro and Martin wore their cap and gown.
It wasn’t part of the plan. G-P had an extended stay in Murfreesboro this week and a date with destiny Friday for the Class A state soccer championship.
Ricardo Turcois scored two goals less than five minutes apart late in the second half as the Highlanders (14-9) rallied to defeat Signal Mountain 2-1 at Richard Siegel Soccer Complex for the program’s first state title. The game-winner came with 8:37 left.
Renfro, who made all of his nine saves in the second half against Signal Mountain (13-7-4), played midfielder or forward the past three seasons.
Coach Zach Schrandt, who was a ballboy when the soccer program started at G-P, talked Renfro, a captain, into making the switch to goalkeeper.
It was a sacrifice Renfro, the placekicker for the football team, was willing to make his senior year.
Renfro went home after school on the day of the wildfire. And like any normal teen starting playing video games. It wasn’t long before his parents told him to pack a bag. While he and his mom went to a friend’s place in Pigeon Forge, Renfro’s dad and brother tried to save the home. When a home on the next ridge was on fire, the two left and eventually joined up at a cabin safe and sound.
“We wake up the next day and the house is gone,” said Renfro. “It’s kind of surreal.”
The family rebuilt on the same spot where their home was destroyed.
After the game ended and the team ran over to thank their cheering fans, Renfro jumped a short fence and raced over to give his grandmother, Hazel, a hug.
Martin, a midfielder, also had reasons to celebrate.
“We saw ashes falling from the sky,” as Martin described the day of the wildfire. “So instantly I knew something was up. As school let out at 3:05, I went to downtown Gatlinburg. It was orange. My first thing was to get out of there.”