It was a hot weekday afternoon, but the stands were packed. Gardena Flores sat on the edge of the wooden bleachers, watching with the intensity of an expectant father.
"C'mon, Lisa," Flores bellowed to pitcher Lisa Bautista, a Banning High School senior who had set a national girls' softball record by pitching 17 no-hitters in the 23-game season.
"She's looking for a walk, Lisa," Flores warned, rising to his feet, sitting down, standing up again.
He nudged a visitor and pointed to the shortstop. "See that girl? I used to play ball with her dad. This is my school. I always come to the games. I haven't missed a football game since World War II.
Hitch-Hiked to Game
"And even then," he confided with a chuckle, "I once left my Army base a day early and hitch-hiked home to a Banning game."
Flores' devotion to Banning has endured beyond his tenure at the Wilmington campus. It persisted while his son attended Banning. With his son now grown, it continues.
But Flores, 59, is no anomaly. The 56-year-old school has a history of unflinching community support.
"Banning just doesn't seem to wash out of your blood if you live in Wilmington," said Susan Chapman, 36, an alumna who attended the softball game with her mother, Wanda Lackey, 59.
In a community that has more than its share of problems, many residents see Banning as a sterling asset. The sprawling campus of 87 classrooms--reconstructed in 1975 and one of the most modern high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District--has an enrollment of 3,100 students who hail from both Wilmington and Carson.
In fact, many say Banning is the pride of Wilmington--a symbol of the tradition of the 126-year-old community, of its longstanding commitment to its youth, of the community's greatest accomplishments. "Banning is one of the things that is Wilmington's own, and everybody is part of it," said Connie Calderon, who runs the Wilmington Teen Center.
The community's fervent support of the school is perhaps most evident at its athletic events. Football games, the largest draw, pull in an average of 6,000 fans-- more than any other school in Los Angeles, district officials say.
"Almost everybody else in the district is lucky if they draw 3,000 to 4,000," said Lee Joseph, school district specialist for interscholastic athletics.
In Good Years and Bad
And even though Banning has taken first place in Los Angeles high school football 7 of the last 10 years, the community's support was as evident in less successful days. During a slump in 1972, for example, 500 fans followed the Banning Pilots to Reno, Nev., for a game against Procter R. Hug High School. In the previous game of the 1-7 season, Banning had been shut out, 41-0.
"We had 500 fans and they had 300," recalled varsity football Coach Chris Ferragamo. "Can you believe 500 people would go to Reno to see a high school team with that record? It was the one game we won all season."
That community support, says Principal Estela Pena, provides for a wide variety of sports and extra-curricular programs. "If the community didn't go to the games and support our fund-raisers, we wouldn't have a nickel in our student body account," Pena said.
Banning boosterism also has helped the school make recent strides in academic performance, school officials say. For a school that has its share of districtwide problems--including a one-third dropout rate and school overcrowding--community support has helped encourage academic achievement, officials say. Since 1971, for example, Banning's enrollment in advanced-placement courses has quadrupled and the number of students who attend four-year colleges has tripled.
Seven years ago, residents helped initiate at Banning the state's first academic booster club, an organization that recruits donors for scholarships and awards varsity letter jackets to students for scholastic achievement. Last year 45 jackets--about 20 more than the first year--were awarded to seniors who had 3.5 grade-point average or better during 10th and 11th grades.
"Most schools have booster clubs for their bands and their football teams," said Maurice Williams, 18, a recent graduate, "but Banning has parents who boost academics. They raise money for our academic letter jackets and they help pay for advanced placement exams for students who can't afford to pay the full cost. I think it has really helped us."
"Education means something in this town," said Ferragamo, the coach, who also is a biology teacher. "If a teacher calls a parent and says, 'Mrs. Lopez, your kid is screwing around,' that kid comes back straightened up the next day."
And if the community has supported Banning's athletics and academics, it also has rallied around Banning's successful graduates, including the 60% who attend college, the more than 20 who have returned to Banning as teachers and such sports greats as former Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo (Chris' brother) and Freeman McNeil, the 1981 National Football League rookie of the year.
And that support has prompted some students to consider coming full circle.
"I would like to send my kids to a place like Banning," said Stephanie Farmer, 17, a recent graduate. "The community support--through scholarships and the athletics and through some of the clubs--really makes a difference to the kids. If it can't be Banning for my kids, I want it to be a school like Banning."