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High School Sports

These high school teams are changing things up and winning off the field

Nelson Gonzalez, Derek Benton

Maya Angelou High School football Coach Derek Benton with defensive back-running back Nelson Gonzalez.

(Photo courtesy of Derek Benton)

Winning isn’t the only way to define success in high school football.

Take the case of Los Angeles Jordan High School. The Watts school was once an athletic powerhouse in a variety of sports. Dwindling enrollment and changing demographics left Jordan’s football program in disarray in 2015, when the team stopped playing on Oct. 21 because it was down to 11 eligible players. 

Enter first-year Coach Gary Parks, who used to coach at nearby Verbum Dei. He started a mandatory study hall. The team moved to playing in a division for eight-man teams. In late August, there were nine players available for the Bulldogs’ first game. Last week, the roster was up to 25.

“It’s amazing,” Parks said. “We haven’t lost anyone.”

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One Jordan parent praised the coach in an email to The Times: “In the face of all the challenges, coaches really can make a difference in the lives of student-athletes. All it takes is the decision to do things differently and some guidance from someone who genuinely has a heart for change. 

“Almost one year to the date, everyone on the roster is eligible. … Although the kids are competing in eight-man, growth and positive steps cannot be overlooked based on competition level. One year later, they are winners.”

Parks has two junior standouts who could play for a lot of teams. Marcell Lee is a 6-foot-2, 265-pound lineman, and strong safety Antonio Castellanos has a 3.5 grade-point average. The team’s record is 4-3, and the Bulldogs could be headed to the eight-man playoffs.

Parks is hoping one day the school can return to 11-man football, but the first requirement is developing consistency in the classroom.

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“We’re on the right path,” he said.

Another football team discovering pride and success is Maya Angelou, in its fifth year of existence in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school never won a game on the field until last season.

Coach Derek Benton points toward 5-foot-6, 141-pound junior defensive back-running back Nelson Gonzalez as an example of how he’s trying to “change the culture.”

Coach Derek Benton points toward 5-foot-6, 141-pound junior Nelson Gonzalez as an example of how he’s trying to “change the culture.”
Coach Derek Benton points toward 5-foot-6, 141-pound junior Nelson Gonzalez as an example of how he’s trying to “change the culture.”
(Derek Benton )

Gonzalez has a 4.0 GPA and was valedictorian at his middle school. He’s the fourth oldest of six brothers and sisters, with three either having graduated from college or are attending college. His goal is to become an engineer.

“I’m very proud of this young man,” Benton said.

Gonzalez said his parents are from El Salvador and don’t speak English. But his brothers and sisters are bilingual and are told they must go to college.

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“They kind of make it a for sure deal,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez didn’t even play football until this season. On Friday, he had an interception along with a long pass reception in Angelou’s 28-0 win over Fremont.

Nelson Gonzalez has a 4.0 grade-point average and was valedictorian at his middle school.
Nelson Gonzalez has a 4.0 grade-point average and was valedictorian at his middle school.
(Derek Benton )

Equally intriguing is that Angelou players are told they can do their homework before practice or even during practice if that’s what is needed to help them in the classroom.

“I’m big on student athletes, so when they need their time for homework, if it’s during practice time, that’s what I allow them to do,” Benton said.

Angelou is 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the Exposition League.

But it’s off the field success that many should be proud of.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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Twitter: @latsondheimer


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