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Uncertainty, new opportunities await Bell-Jeff coaches after school’s closure

Uncertainty, new opportunities await Bell-Jeff coaches after school’s closure
"I really don’t know what’s next for me," said Bellarmine-Jefferson High athletic director and football coach Fred Martinez in the wake of the school's closure. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Jim Couch isn’t ready to retire from coaching just yet.

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Couch has spent 45 years at Bellarmine-Jefferson High as a teacher, coach and administrator. But after word came that the school was slated to shut down following the 2017-18 school year, the longtime mainstay planned to retire.

“That was the plan initially,” said Couch, who most recently coached the Bell-Jeff cross-country and track and field teams. “There were a few things that I wanted to do after being at the school for such a long time.”

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But those plans have changed.

Couch is moving on to a new coaching endeavor, as he will take over the cross-country and track and field teams at Los Angeles Sacred Heart of Jesus, an all-girls Catholic school.

“It worked out and it’s close to my home, so I look at it as a great opportunity,” said Couch, who led the Bell-Jeff boys’ track and field team to a Santa Fe League championship this past season. “I won’t be teaching, so I am going to take that time off for sure.

“But I will stay coaching track and field and cross-country and hopefully I can bring a little elevation to their program. They have done pretty well in the past and they have won seven league titles, so hopefully we can continue that. …We want to take it to the next level.”

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Couch said he will also continue to hold the longstanding annual cross-country invitational at Griffith Park.

When the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced in October that Bell-Jeff would close at the conclusion of the school year, it set off an exodus of student-athletes transferring to other schools.

However, a group of students decided to stay and finish out the school year.

A handful of coaches, including Couch, also made the decision to stay on to see Bell-Jeff athletics through to the end.

Fred Martinez took over as athletic director and head football coach at an already fledgling Bell-Jeff in 2014. In the past few years the school has struggled with low numbers and some athletic programs have suffered, with the school having to cancel sports like baseball, softball, soccer.

In the final year of Bell-Jeff athletics, only eight-man football, cross-country, girls’ and boys’ volleyball, boys’ basketball and track and field remained.

Martinez, Couch and Erick Beck were the only head coaches who remained.

One of the athletic highlights for the school the past few years was the Bell-Jeff girls’ basketball team capturing a CIF Southern Section Division V-A during the 2016-17 season. However, the program did not field a team during the 2017-18 campaign.

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“We have tried our best to maintain the sports the past few years and in some cases we have been successful and in some other cases we haven’t,” Martinez said. “We just tried to put teams out there that were competitive and we wanted the kids to have fun.

“This past year has been tough, I will admit it. But give credit to the athletes who stayed around and tried to make the best of it. I know it was difficult for them, as well.”

Although Bell-Jeff’s final class graduated Saturday, Martinez will be staying on in his athletic director position through the month of June. He said he will spend the time organizing things for the school and helping students find schools to transfer to.

“Since we’re closing, everything is clear for kids transferring out and they will be eligible and they don’t have to sit out if they want to compete in sports at another school,” Martinez said. “I have it all set up where none of the kids have to worry about it at all and I made sure that everybody is taken care of.

“It is really a mixture of where kids are going from here. I think about a quarter of the kids are transferring to Catholic schools and others will be going to various public and private schools.”

Martinez, who has coached at Burbank, Hoover and Temple City highs, said he will concentrate on his duties at Bell-Jeff through July 1 and then possibly test the waters about other opportunities.

“I really don’t know what’s next for me; I really haven’t put anything together,” Martinez said. “I will tell you what, I haven’t even interviewed for any jobs, though my name has been tied to probably five or so jobs.

“I just want to finish up what I have to do here and then move on and see where I will end up.”

Founded in 1944, Bell-Jeff, a private Roman Catholic school, served the community for 74 years.

With Bell-Jeff closing, the grounds will be taken over by a new school in 2019, St. John Paul II Academy, which will not field CIF competitive sports.

Beck served as the boys’ and girls’ volleyball coach for the Guards this past school year. Beck, who also coaches club volleyball, said he is holding out hope that Bell-Jeff might return in some capacity in the future.

“We will see what the next steps for me are, but I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to be,” Beck said. “I enjoyed my time there and it was a good experience for me.

“If by any chance the school were to reopen I think I would still be a good fit there for the program and I wouldn’t mind helping build it up again and take over where I left off.”

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