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They Are Heart of the City : Football: Belmont has players who make up in desire what they lack in knowledge of the game.

TIMES PREP SPORTS EDITOR

Robert Levy looks forward to the day when a player who goes out for football at Belmont High knows more about the sport than simply its name.

In 10 years of coaching at the school, Levy can count on his fingers the number of players who had played football before trying out for the team.

When 200 hopeful players showed up for the first day of practice two weeks ago, the veteran coach just shook his head and started counting his playbooks.

“What these kids lack in experience,” Levy said, “they more than make up for in heart. Most of them have hearts of gold. They try as hard as I could ever ask for.”

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The prevailing lack of football knowledge can be attributed in large part to the school’s location. Belmont, a quarter-mile west of downtown Los Angeles on Second Street, has the largest and one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the district.

Belmont’s enrollment of 4,350, in four grades, consists primarily of Latinos and Asian-Americans. As many as half are foreign-born and arrive on campus only a short time after arriving in the United States. Administrators estimate that 27 languages are spoken at the school. Most classes are taught bilingually or ESL (with English as a second language).

“Not only are many of the kids unfamiliar with the game, but some have trouble just speaking English,” said Levy, who was a running back at Westchester High in the late 1960s. “And since I don’t speak much Spanish, sometimes there are problems.”

Mario Ruiz, the team’s quarterback, is familiar with the language barriers. A starter on the junior varsity last season, Ruiz remembers communication troubles resulting in broken plays.

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“Many times, the guys understand what I’m saying, but then they get the numbers all mixed up,” he said. “It gets frustrating, but I’m hoping things will be better this year.”

Ruiz, 5 feet 9 and 135 pounds, will direct the varsity in the season opener next week. Levy proudly points out that when a player reaches the varsity level he can spend more time perfecting his game rather than learning it.

“We may never be City champs,” Levy said, “but we’ll be as competitive as any team out there. This team works hard and never quits.”

Belmont is the district high school closest to downtown. The downtown skyline serves as a backdrop to the football field, with City Hall seemingly within arm’s reach. The majority of students live in the surrounding neighborhoods, which are among the poorest in the district. Because gang activity is prevalent in the area, students are forbidden to leave campus until they are finished for the day.

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“We have created a very safe environment within school grounds,” said Sal Casteneda, vice principal in charge of athletics for the last eight years. “Our students know that as long as they’re here, nothing will happen to them. But once they leave school, there are some risks. This area can be especially dangerous at night.

“If a student violates our rules, we just ship them out to another school,” he said. “We’re so overcrowded now that we don’t need more people. We’d gladly give up a few if they can’t get along.”

Athletically, the school is known for its outstanding cross-country teams. The Sentinels swept the City boys’ and girls’ championships last season. The boys have won eight of the last nine titles, the girls the last two. Belmont also is among the leaders in boys’ and girls’ soccer. Each sport draws about as many participants as football.

Football remains a high-profile sport and receives strong support from the student body.

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“Many of the kids who go out for football are seeking recognition,” Casteneda said. “They like to be recognized as a football player. In a school this big, that can mean a lot. Those who can’t command as much respect in academics can often find an outlet on the football field.”

Levy, 38, worked as an assistant until taking over as head coach in 1986. His first move was to hire qualified junior varsity coaches who could teach players the principles of the game. Budget cuts have trimmed his staff to four paid positions, so he relies on volunteer alumni to help out.

“About 99% of the kids who come out know little or nothing about football,” Levy said. “Most are much more familiar with soccer. They’ve seen football on television and admire the pro players, but since there’s no Pop Warner League in this area, they haven’t had the opportunity to play.”

His second action was to implement a weight-training program. He said the team has never been blessed with size or speed, so he counts on strength to help close the gap.

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Levy also has tried to come up with imaginative game plans to outsmart opponents.

“We can’t line up toe-to-toe with most teams and slug it out,” he said. “We probably have the smallest players in the City, so we often have to rely on trickery.”

Players describe Levy as a fair coach with little tolerance for misbehavior.

“Coach Levy has his limits,” said Jose Blanco, a three-year starter at nose tackle.

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Patience and hard work pay off at Belmont. Senior running back Helmer Vallejos, born and raised in El Salvador, knew little about the game in his freshman season. For three years, he played running back on the junior varsity, learning the sport and waiting for his big break.

This season, he is expected to be the varsity’s main offensive threat.

“I’m still waiting for my mother to come watch me play,” said Vallejos, 5-8 and 140. “She doesn’t really understand the game and says she can’t stand to watch me get hit.”

The Sentinels, who have turned out only one NCAA Division I player in the past decade, are coming off their best season in several years. They won the Northwestern League championship and advanced to the semifinals of the 3-A Division playoffs in 1990, finishing with an 11-2 record, Levy’s best. This year, they will compete in the 4-A Division.

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“Winning seasons come in cycles here,” Levy said. “Sometimes you get a talented group of kids in a class, and everything clicks. But when you have to start over every season, it can get kind of rough.”


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