The field house at St. Paul High is as dark as the day will allow. Five long tables stretch across the room. The candles on them look like lights on an airport runway.
The St. Paul football team enters in silence. The players take their places, tucking their ties as they sit. Tonight's meal: shredded beef in a light sauce.
Across Los Angeles, Manual Arts Coach Glenn Bell is greeting his players as they return for the night's game against Hamilton. He looks in their eyes, watches their gaits. In many, he does not see the same player that left school at the end of classes.
"I wish I could keep them here," Bell said, "but by offering them what?"
The St. Paul players stay together and eat a pregame meal, and those at Manual Arts leave school, because the Swordsmen have boosters and friends of the program who donate money and time and Manual Arts doesn't.
As the spotlight on high school athletics increases in intensity and costs rise, the role of the booster is becoming increasingly important. It seems every successful athletic program in the Southland has a team of boosters behind it. St. Paul, Mater Dei, Los Alamitos, Hart, Carson--look behind the winning teams and you will see a group that often is twice as large as the team itself.
"I don't think you could have a top program without the support of a booster club," said John Barnes, Los Alamitos' coach and athletic director. "You could be competitive, but in order to win consistently you must have that support."
An example of booster support is at St. Paul, where football is king and the athletes--particularly football players--are treated like royalty.
Not only do players wear blue blazers and eat a candlelight dinner before every game, every Tuesday parents and fans gather in the field house and listen to Coach Marijon Ancich break down game film amid grilling hamburgers and hot dogs.
The team's promotions coordinator faxes complete game statistics to interested parties and helps put together 200-page game programs. And the school and booster club is gaining steam to attack the hefty price tag for a proposed game in Hawaii in 1996. There is a dance Friday night for friends and boosters, and there is little doubt among Swordsmen that they will make that plane.
St. Paul's extravagance is by no means unusual. Los Alamitos sometimes gets 200 people to watch a Saturday practice, often serving doughnuts and juice to the players. Most big-time programs have pregame meals and end-of-the-season banquets with the flare of a presidential dinner.
"Like a lot of schools, we have parents and supporters who are willing to do anything to help the school's athletic program," St. Paul Athletic Director Robert Oviedo said.
St. Paul is ranked 17th in The Times' poll, Los Alamitos is No. 1. Their success is both the reason for and the result of booster involvement. Parents and fans offer to cook meals and organize fund-raisers because the team has won and because they want more success.
"People are always eager to align themselves with a winning program," Barnes said.
But just as a booster club can be a coach's greatest asset, it can also be his greatest fear.
"When you have a big booster club, putting that much time in, they feel like they have say in what goes on on the field," Hart Coach Mike Herrington said.
Herrington gave out his phone number when he became the coach in 1988, but now he pleads with parents and fans not to call him.
"One call from a fan or parent complaining is too many," he said.
Complaints come with coaching, but they tend to grow in importance when coming from a booster who pays dues and raises large amounts of money for the program.
Los Alamitos' booster club recently financed $27,000 worth of video equipment. At Hart, the booster club contributes an estimated $50,000 annually.
In one sense, the extra money takes pressure off coaches to raise funds, but in the same sense he must remember the origin of the money.
When Los Alamitos' Barnes took over as coach in 1979, he said he felt the need to make friends with the boosters immediately.
"I think the coaches that get in trouble with the boosters are those that drive a wedge between themselves and the supporters," Barnes said. "It is part of a coach's job to make sure that the booster club is a positive for the program."
There are incidents in which the booster club can be a severe negative, and none is better documented than the coaching fiasco at Trabuco Hills last spring.
The school hired a coach, Tim Ellis, who was not the boosters' choice. The group protested, and two days later, Ellis, who had given up his coaching position at Tustin, was fired before he ever blew a whistle for the Mustangs.
"If you don't define the boosters' role, then it can be trouble," St. John Bosco Principal Bill Goodman said. "Boosters have such a financial-based influence that, if you don't keep their role in perspective, things can get out of hand."
There is also the danger of boosters throwing full support behind one sport--say football--and ignoring the lesser-light sports, such as tennis, cross country or water polo.
"That can be as detrimental as a booster club that tries to get too involved," Goodman said. "You can't have people willing to raise money for the big sports and have the others with nothing."
But even with the drawbacks, coaches and administrators know shunning boosters could be suicide.
They could end up in the same situation as Manual Arts.
"We have no booster club and we don't even have enough funds, despite trying to have fund-raisers all season long," Bell said. "There are things I wish I could do for the kids but can't, like keeping them on campus before games.
"All kids handle pressure differently, and because I have to let my kids go on game days, they may go out and drink or do drugs. The kids that come back for the games are not the same as when I let them go at the end of classes."
The school allocated $2,000 at the start of the season for football equipment, but the cost of helmets alone was $1,600.
The situation is the same at many city schools.
At Jordan, players are asked to bring in 10 aluminum cans each game to help with costs.
"We are right on the minimum," Jordan Athletic Director Ed Kamiyama said. "It is almost impossible in the inner city to have a booster program, and the athletic teams are less because of that."
Along with the financial loss, there is also a psychological vacancy.
"I think it is important for the athletes to see that people care about the effort they are putting in," Bell said. "And to have the little extra--maybe to eat a pregame dinner together--that makes all the difference."