'I'm Just Another Guy at Sunny Hills' : Football: A year removed from a tumultuous season at Whittier Christian, Jacob Cuccia seems to be getting his game--and his life--back to normal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scoring touchdowns, making jump shots or hitting a curveball were always easy for Jacob Cuccia at Whittier Christian High School. Dealing with life off the athletic field was another story.

Cuccia was a junior running back who routinely made headlines last season for Whittier Christian's high-powered offense. He led all running backs in Orange County after the eighth week with 1,292 yards and 17 touchdowns rushing.

Once football season ended, Cuccia would become the starting point guard for the varsity basketball team for a third consecutive season. In the spring, he figured to be a starting outfielder for the baseball team.

But Cuccia never finished his junior year at Whittier Christian, a private school in La Habra. Instead, he was dismissed from the football team in late October and later from the school for disciplinary reasons.

Cuccia spent the remainder of the year bouncing between two public high schools, Sonora and Sunny Hills, and admittedly trying to get his life together while living with family friends. His future?

"I really didn't know if I was going to school this year," he said. "Those final four weeks of last season were a very difficult part of my life. Football had always been a big part of my life, and suddenly, it was gone.

"I felt like I let myself and my teammates down. The team lost in the second round of the (Division IX) playoffs (9-0, to Tehachapi). I think the team could have won the CIF (Southern Section) title, and I could have rushed for 2,000 yards."

Instead, Cuccia was left to put the pieces of his life back together. It was a life first shattered by his parents' divorce and later by a series of events that led to his father, Bill, resigning as Whittier Christian's basketball coach in October of 1988.

Bill Cuccia had successfully led Whittier Christian to a 180-49 record and seven Olympic League titles in nine seasons before resigning. He had taught his son, Jacob, the fundamentals of the game, and Jacob had been the school's ballboy since he was 4 years old.

"You know how kids go out on the court at halftime and shoot around during games," Jacob said. "I was one of those kids ever since I can remember."

But as the father-son relationship deteriorated after the divorce, Jacob began to rebel. He loafed during football practices. He broke team rules. He became disruptive in the classroom. His grades declined. School officials, while sympathetic to Cuccia's problems, finally had had enough after bending over backward for him for two months.

Cuccia was dismissed by Whittier Christian's school board last January and transferred to Sunny Hills. Two weeks later, when "things just didn't work out," he transferred to Sonora.

He attended Sonora for a semester while living with the family of Steve and Vickie Ridenour. He returned to Sunny Hills after being granted a hardship eligibility from Southern Section administrators and began practicing with the school's football team in July.

Cuccia says the stability of the Ridenour family was an influential part of his comeback.

"They've given me a lot of moral support," he said. "They're great people to have taken me into their family at a time when I was having a lot of problems."

Cuccia has become a productive player on the field again. He has rushed for 302 yards in four games, averaging 8.9 yards per carry in Sunny Hills' Delaware wing-T offense. A change of scenery has helped.

"Coming here has allowed me me to make a fresh start," he said. "I needed a new environment where people don't know my past. I can start over here.

"I was a big fish in a little pond at Whittier Christian. When you're an athlete at Whittier Christian, everyone admires you. When you're a star athlete at Whittier Christian, you're put on a pedestal.

"I'm just another guy at Sunny Hills. I had mixed feelings when I got here. The players on this level (Division VII) are bigger and faster. I wondered how I would do. It was a stressful week before our first game against La Mirada.

"I had some self-doubts. But I was happy with my game and when some of teammates came up to me and said, 'You're now officially a Lancer,' I felt like I belonged here."

Cuccia also admits that part of him still belongs at Whittier Christian. Every day there are reminders of his former school.

Stephanie and Liz Ridenour, members of Cuccia's adopted family, are cheerleaders at Whittier Christian. So is his girlfriend, Julie Cella. And freshman Jimmy Cuccia, Jacob's brother, is a running back for the Heralds' junior varsity.

Cuccia met Cella when they were freshmen at Whittier Christian, and they have continued to date since he left the school. He credits her support more than all of those who have helped him for his continuing success.

"She is one person who has always been there for me," he said. "Julie and I have been close since our freshman year. We broke up one time for three months, but basically, she's been with me all this time. I can't believe she's stuck with me.

"There's still a part of me that will always be a Whittier Christian Herald. I went back to their game against Duarte last week, and it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. It brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad."

One of the memories that continues to haunt Cuccia is his relationship with his father. He said he hasn't spoken to him in nearly three years and offered a goodwill gesture at the end of the interview.

"If you could just put one thing in the article," Cuccia said. "I just wish my father could come and watch me play. I'd like him to see that I'm a pretty good player and that I'm trying to turn my life around."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°