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Dorsey is back in the game, ready to rebuild program

Dorsey reserves watch their teammates play against Santa Monica on Friday night at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

With two minutes left in the game Friday night, Dorsey quarterback Josh Coleman reared back, firing a spiral that flew high under the lights at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

Coleman, a transfer from Playa del Rey St. Bernard in February 2020, had a vision of what his first game at Dorsey would look like. He’d return to Jackie Robinson, the field where he played his Pop Warner games as a kid, the field he called “a staple” of the community. He’d see the Dons’ green and black checkering the metal bleachers, parents smiling, longtime friends waving.

For a year and a half, he never had the chance to see any of it. Dorsey didn’t play in the spring. Interest in the program was crippled by COVID-19.

On this night, though, as senior receiver Mychai Williams leaped in the end zone to snare Coleman’s pass for a touchdown, the scene the quarterback dreamed of was real. Players fell over themselves on the sidelines cheering, a crowd of perhaps 200 in the stands sounding like 2,000 as Dorsey sealed a 14-0 win over Santa Monica in its first game since 2019.

Dorsey quarterback Josh Coleman talks to fans in the stands at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Friday night.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

On the field, after chest-bumping Williams, Coleman turned toward the stands. He threw up his arms, beckoning for more noise.

“It’s been a long, uphill climb,” assistant coach Stephen Williams said. “This ain’t the normal Dorsey. This the new Dorsey.”

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The normal Dorsey for many years, was a picture of football excellence in the City Section. The Dons won five championships between 1982 and 2001, a consistent pipeline for NFL talent.

But in 2019, Dorsey went 3-8. The following year, COVID-19 struck Los Angeles. At one point last summer, according to coach Stafon Johnson, the team had just five or six players committed. Their numbers increased by the spring, but they simply weren’t ready for a season, Johnson said.

Plenty of charter schools in the City Section were able to keep their programs humming. There was a key reason, according to assistant coach Irvin Davis: They had on-site COVID testing.

“It was different for us,” Davis said.

The L.A. Unified School District required weekly negative results to keep players eligible, but testing was available to Dorsey only at specific locations around the city, Davis said. Many players didn’t have the means to get to those sites. So the coaching staff started a practice of picking them up from their homes in school vans to drive them before the district eventually started providing on-site testing once a week.

Their efforts paid off. The roster grew to more than 30.

A Dorsey assistant coach greets players coming off the field after a defensive stop against Santa Monica on Friday night.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)

Overcoming the roadblocks has been a difficult challenge for Johnson, who was hired by his alma mater in 2019 for the first coaching job of his career. The former standout running back was patient as a player at Dorsey and USC. He’s brought the same attitude as a coach.

“Let it come to fruition,” Johnson said. “Everything always arrives. Let the blockers block … the hole opens up.”

Dorsey came into the season an unknown. MaxPreps had the Dons ranked 657th in the state before their win Friday. With the odds stacked against them, that’s given the team incentive.

“Everyone has an extra chip on their shoulder,” Coleman said. “Writers, things like that, don’t really expect us to do anything, so we’re just ready to bring Dorsey back to what it was.”

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Sharone Hapuarchy, an English teacher at Dorsey, has a custom in her class: a brief period when she goes around and asks everyone to name their high and low of the week.

The answers of football players, she said, were mostly the same — their high being excitement for Friday’s first game, their low the cancellation of a planned opening night the previous week.

Dorsey’s season was set to kick off Aug. 20. But not enough players were cleared under COVID-19 protocols.

“We felt like last Friday, we were robbed of that opportunity to show everyone what we were doing,” Coleman said.

That disappointment united the team, Johnson observed. The last week of practice had been their best: improved punctuality, attention to detail, execution in drills. It also further charged a team atmosphere already buzzing with excitement.

On Friday morning, Hapuarchy and fellow teachers Nikki Gilliam and Janoyne Horton watched as a pep rally boomed on the Dorsey quad. Horton said players in her class had begged her, “Miss, will you come tonight?”

“It’s such a show of pride for them,” Horton said.

That pride was clear against Santa Monica. Dorsey seniors Shyheim Holland and Malik Stevenson swallowed up run plays at the line of scrimmage. Williams, junior Semaj Dunn and senior Ryan Landrum-Alvarez intercepted passes. Coleman, who told everyone this was the first time in his career he didn’t feel nervous for a first game, bounced back from an early interception by throwing two touchdown passes.

As the clock hit zeroes and players gathered around the goalpost after the handshake line, Johnson jumped into the throng and started an impromptu hype circle. It was the first win of his coaching career, and a sweet one.

“A lot of people don’t understand the work that [our team has] put in, the time that our coaches have put in,” Johnson said.


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