Teenagers are known for their resiliency, but 17-year-old defensive tackle Lance Manuleleua of Narbonne had to dig deep to make it through this football season.
It was a year ago, before the City Section championship game, that police came to escort him away. His father, Ioane, 49, had collapsed in the elevator at El Camino College. He later died.
So there he was on Friday night, back to the same place, playing in the Open Division championship game against Crenshaw. At halftime, he became very emotional.
“I miss him very much,” Manuleleua said. “I went into the corner and said a prayer.”
Soon he was being hugged by teammates and smiling after Narbonne (10-3) won its seventh championship in the last 10 seasons with a 48-7 win over Crenshaw.
“In the beginning of the summer, I was emotional,” he said. “I couldn’t do it without my father, but my family told me to do it for him. If it wasn’t for these boys keeping me strong ... without them I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d probably be on the street selling drugs.”
Instead, he was part of a team that was one of the most dominant in recent City Section history. No City opponent came closer than 34 points. It was Narbonne and everyone else.
There were many standouts against the Cougars (10-3). Running back Jermar Jefferson rushed for 187 yards in 21 carries and scored three touchdowns. Receiver Steven Jenkins caught five passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Jalen Chatman completed 18 of 26 passes for 245 yards and four touchdowns. And the Gauchos’ defense, led by linebackers Raymond Scott, Darien Butler and Julian Lewis, wouldn’t allow Crenshaw any big plays or long drives.
Before Coach Manuel Douglas showed up 15 years ago, Narbonne was hardly on the radar as a City Section football power. The Gauchos weren’t ready to take on the likes of Carson, Crenshaw and Dorsey. Douglas’ background was running the Wing T, not exactly an offense to win championships in the 21st century.
He soon realized he had to grow as a coach if his program was going to transition into an elite one. He switched to the spread offense similar to the one deployed by Urban Meyer. He went on visits to Oregon, Texas Tech, Washington, SMU and Corona Centennial to learn the trending offensive philosophy. And it’s worked.
“We learned how to practice, what to practice, what to emphasize,” Douglas said of his many journeys around the country.
Besides coaching, the Gauchos have been producing big linemen, fast players, good quarterbacks and aggressive defenders. The Gauchos outscored their three playoff opponents 167-21.
“They got it going,” Crenshaw Coach Robert Garrett said.
Afterward, Manuleleua got to reflect and think of his father.
“My dad’s dream for me was to get a scholarship for my family,” he said.
That remains to be seen, but his father would certainly have been cheering loudly and proud of his son, once again a City champ.