How Poly Gets Its Groove Back
Strength and conditioning coach Greg Washington talks to the players earlier this week. Photos by Matt Cohn.
Classes were over on a warm and breezy afternoon earlier this week at Poly High School and the football team had begun its warm-ups. Boys and girls from several other sports were practicing nearby and the atmosphere was one of community and cheerful determination.
There was no indication that the Jackrabbits just suffered their worst loss in nearly a century.
“We’re on the rebound,” says varsity quarterback Eban Jackson, who, along with his football teammates, doesn’t have time to brood over last Friday’s 56-0 defeat at the hands of a hungry Narbonne team. He’s preparing to lead his squad into battle tonight against the undefeated Bakersfield Drillers, who are ranked #1 in the C.I.F. Central Section and are averaging 48 points and almost 400 yards rushing per game.
Poly lost a big wave of seniors this year and is also coping with a season-ending injury to 260-lb. defensive end Raymond Price. Still, head coach Raul Lara and his coaching staff–who all volunteer their football time–are relentlessly determined and upbeat.
“We knew we’d have some younger players starting, but we love our talent,” says Lara.
When warm-ups end, strength and conditioning coach Greg Washington addresses the team. “We’re not intimidating anyone,” he tells them. Voice rising slightly, he instructs the team to tone down its pre-game swag and concentrate on intensity and execution. “‘Just enough’ is not going to do it,” he says. “Don’t be too cool to do it right.”
The next phase of this 4-hour practice is a “walk-through,” led by coach Lara and coach Jeff Turley. Bakersfield’s potent running attack and unorthodox defensive line configurations are analyzed: blocking assignments, gaps, angles and other intricacies are discussed. When Turley senses a drop in the attention level, his voice becomes loud and commanding. Instantly, the energy level rises.
“They mimic us,” says defensive line coach Danianke Smith, a Poly alum starting his 7th year with the coaching staff. “The example we try to set is ‘Be here every day. Be all in. Win every battle.'” At every varsity practice there are at least 10 assistant coaches on duty, instructing and exhorting, keeping the standard high.
After walk-throughs the players enter the airless, furnace-like weight room. “Forget about the pain!” yells a coach as the Jackrabbits grind through an intense regimen of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and weights. Most of these athletes will go home after practice and do major homework, but there’s no indication anyone’s pacing himself.
“I spend more time on academics than I do on football,” says sophomore defensive lineman William Hilliard, who’s pursuing his engineering studies and a possible career in aeronautics.
“It’s all about the commitment,” says sophomore defensive lineman Jesse Cardenas. “Academics comes first,” adds Jesse’s twin brother Josh, who’s also a defensive lineman.
The players then move to the field on the northeast side of the campus. The V.I.P. Records sign looms overhead. Quarterback Jackson throws some crisp passes to Thomas Tucker and other receivers. The special teams practice kick-offs. The interior linemen are engaged in full-contact drills, and the intensity level is high. Coaches are in people’s faces. The language gets saltier. People get put on their backs. Toughness is questioned. A little blood appears.
These are the demands of top-level high school football. Coach Lara, a firm but even-tempered man who also works the graveyard shift at the Juvenile Detention Center in L.A., is ideally suited to help his players deal with the “win at all costs” pressures generated from the outside.
“We love our kids,” says Lara. “A lot of people get it blown out of proportion. This program has saved A LOT of kids.”
The 1-2 Jackrabbits are hoping for maximum support in their first home game of the season, under the Friday night lights at Vet’s Stadium tonight. Meanwhile, the freshman and junior varsity teams are both 3-0, which means there are plenty of young players who are beginning to understand the Poly football tradition and the challenges of living up to it.
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