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Century Coach, Team Take Ultimate Field Trip : Basketball: Greg Coombs, his assistants and 12 players will visit historical sites in Washington, New York and Boston.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Greg Coombs thinks of it as taking the classroom on the road.

Coombs, the Century High boys’ basketball coach and physical education teacher, is in Washington today with two of his assistant coaches and 12 varsity players on the first leg of a 10-day, three-city educational journey that has to rank among the ultimate field trips.

The group left Thursday morning from John Wayne Airport and will be in the nation’s capital until Sunday before moving on to New York, the Boston area and back to the Big Apple for the flight home Aug. 25.

It’s a project that had been in the works for about three years and one Coombs hopes will give the students a better understanding of this country’s heritage and its regional characteristics.

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“They are really excited,” Coombs said before departing. “It’s an opportunity for them to see first-hand what they only see in text books. This type of thing can only enhance what they learn in the classroom.”

The students definitely will get a history lesson. Their itinerary includes museums, historical sites and landmarks. And not once will the team play basketball on the trip. This outing is designed to feed the intellect, not a wing player on a fast break.

“We talked about playing games, but we figured it would blow too much time to get ready for the games and to actually play them,” said Coombs, who organized a similar trip several years ago while at Santa Ana High. “Besides, there’s more to high school than playing basketball.”

First on the agenda is a tour of the White House this morning, followed by visits to the Washington and Lincoln monuments. On Saturday, they’ll head for the Capitol, Arlington National Cemetery, the Smithsonian Institution and Alexandria, Va.

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“I can’t wait to get to the White House,” said Thomas Harmon, a sophomore forward who played varsity as a freshman. “I’m also looking forward to going to the National Air and Space Museum (at the Smithsonian). I’ve read many books about it.”

They’ll spend part of Sunday at Georgetown University and the National Archives Building and then it’s on to Manhattan by train that evening.

In New York, the group plans to stop at the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The last two landmarks are what Jason Welty, a junior center on the team, is most eager to see.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Ellis Island because my grandparents came through there from Norway,” Welty said.

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There is also a five-hour drive around the city Tuesday before the day’s main attraction: a night game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets at Shea Stadium. They’ll head for the basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., the next morning and later to Boston for a ballgame at Fenway Park.

On Thursday, it’s on to Harvard University, the Freedom Trail, the Kennedy Library, the Boston Garden and south to Plymouth. The group returns to New York for two more days of sightseeing--Rockefeller Center, the United Nations Building, Radio City Music Hall, Yankee Stadium--before flying back to Orange County.

“It’s a pretty extensive trip,” Coombs said, “but it’s one we think will broaden their horizons . . . There are groups that take trips to China or Europe, but we felt it was more important for them to learn about their own country first. A lot of these kids might not get this kind of opportunity again.”

Welty, for one, feels there’s some truth to that. He said his mother cried when she heard about the trip because it has been her desire to see the Statue of Liberty. She has never fulfilled that dream, but her son will.

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“A lot of us come from low-income families,” Welty said. “A lot of the kids haven’t even been on an airplane before. For most of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

To make it a reality, Coombs said the kids held numerous fund-raisers over the past three years--car washes, fireworks stands, dances--to put together the $15,000 or so needed for the trip. Most of the proceeds from the Carl’s Jr. Christmas basketball tournament hosted by the school last December also went toward the trip. Some of the money was donated by individuals.

Coombs said the fund-raisers also were educational.

“Hopefully, this has taught them an important lesson that when you set goals, they can be attained,” Coombs said. “We set a goal to raise the money and we did it. There’s a lot of skeptics who say you can’t raise that kind of money, but (the students) proved it can be done. . . . The kids are already talking about what they’ll do next year.”

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