Friday, December 11, 2009

School Daze - Championship Fever

As some of you know, I cover high school sports in L.A. This weekend is probably the biggest in Southern California with the section football championships. I'm just gonna tell you about the LA City Section Final on Saturday.

L.A. Crenshaw and Harbor City Narbonne have met the last three postseasons but when they meet Saturday there's a lot at stake. Crenshaw is trying to be first undefeated City champion in 29 years and be the first City team to qualify for the state bowl championships next week. Narbonne, the defending co-City champs is trying to finish off a magical run and beat the Top 3 seeds in the playoffs (having beat Venice and Carson).

Narbonne's story starts last year. Up 21-7 in the 4th quarter in the championship, they let San Pedro come back and tie the game (no overtime rules back then.) They were crushed but for the first time in their history, they had rings. But it couldn't prepare them for what lay ahead.

This past May, Dannie Farber, a senior wide receiver who caught the touchdown to set up their win over Crenshaw last year in the semifinals, was gunned down in Compton weeks before his graduation. It shocked the school and put a sour note to a year that should've been one of the most memorable in their history.

His team (which lost 29 seniors) dedicated this season to him but they started poorly going 1-3. Then in a rematch with San Pedro, they played their best half of the season and found a way to win. Farber's best friend Melvin Davis (a senior RB committed to Washington) played a big role in the comeback and creditted him with motivation. But they went 2-2 the rest of the way, a shocking loss to former City power Banning sent them from a Top 5 seed to No. 11.

Long story short, they won every playoff game on the road. Beat a Venice team that played nationally ranked Oaks Christian tough for 3 quarters. Beat a Carson team that owned them in their first meeting. And now they're back to do what Davis told me - pick up something they left behind last year.

And then there's Crenshaw - one of the last predominantly Black high schools in the LA Unified School District (2nd largest in the country). Known primarily for their basketball program, the inner-city school lost their accreditation earlier this decade before getting it back. But their football team has done something that hasn't been seen in a while.

They defeated five teams in the Southern Section - something that has never happened. They've done with team speed (junior tailback DeAnthony Thomas is one of the fastest kids in the state and defending City champ in the 100m dash - 10.6) and a blistering defense that wants to maim you. I counted at least 7 kids in one playoff game that left the game due to big hits.

They have probably seven Division I prospects, including one of the top linebackers in the state in Hayes Pullard. But more than their record its how they won. They've epitomized what it means to be a team.

Most championship caliber teams have one player who makes the difference for them. Not with Crenshaw - there's no clear cut candidate for the best player on a loaded team. Everyone plays their role and they focus on one game at a time. It's a well-oiled machine that believes in brotherhood over individual and wins over accolades.

They hang out off the field, they encourage each other on it and on the sidelines - if you dont cheer for your teammates, you get cussed out not by the coaches, but the players. Its a self-disciplined, all-for-one attitude.

They carry the hopes of not just a community but a section that has been overlooked because of its size and supposedly sub-standard level of football. Two years ago, a city team went 13-1, beat Long Beach Poly and still was left out because of that first loss. Now Crenshaw has the chance to not just win the City, but contend for something bigger.

I'll be there Saturday to watch a great game. But there's two great stories that will write the final chapter and this is what high school football is all about. There's other great games in So.Cal to watch (The mighty Oaks Christian with their Gatorade National Player of the Year versus Serra for the 3rd year in a row. A Orange County rematch with nationally ranked Edison and Servite) but its all about the kids and the reasons why they compete.

Tomorrow, one school looks to honor their fallen comrade, the other looks to get one step closer to history. Inner city versus South Bay. Division I talent on both sides. And reasons motivating them that anyone can get behind.

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