It was hustle and bustle time at Paramount High School last Friday, the final weekday before classes began. Construction workers, their saws whining, scurried to finish a $9-million science and administration complex.
Electrical wires hung from ceiling panels, and floor covering stood boxed beside a barren stairway. Teachers, some wearing T-shirts proclaiming the school's back-to-back Southern Section Division III football titles, carted boxes of beakers and books.
Football Coach Ken Sutch endured the din, his bright blue eyes gleaming at all the changes. Hours later in the season opener, Paramount rolled on, mauling Bell Gardens, 27-6.
Like the new building, Paramount's football team is full of wrinkles but loaded with promise. Only eight starters return from last year's 13-1 team, but because Sutch allowed almost everyone to play last year, a host of experienced players return.
Against Bell Gardens, Steve Lopez and Larry Hooper, both backups last season to All-Southern Section Jack Manu, took turns at quarterback.
"It makes for better morale and for better practices," Sutch said. "I owe it to the kid that comes out every day and runs sprints alongside the rest of the players. If I have the opportunity to play him, I will."
It was easy for Sutch, 65-25 in his ninth season, to let everyone play last year. In more than half its games, Paramount held halftime leads as large as 35 points. The only loss was to Lynwood, but that did not stop the Pirates from winning their second San Gabriel Valley League title.
It might not be so easy this season. Only two Southern Section teams have won three consecutive titles. And this year, in an attempt to balance the level of play, the Southern Section bumped up fifth-ranked Paramount into Division II, which includes perennial finalists Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley, Muir of Pasadena and El Toro.
In addition, Paramount faces a tough battle with Dominguez and Lynwood just to defend its two consecutive league titles.
Sutch, 42, who attended Millikan High in Long Beach, is known to be fair, honest and a disciplinarian. Miss a practice, miss a game. A tardy player must spin a wheel that hangs from a wall in the school's musty weight room. The wheel is divided into sections, each assigning some type of physical activity as discipline.
In Sutch's early years, more than one player crawled the football field, or ran an extra mile. A few got lucky when the arrow found the "pardon" slot. The wheel has made his job easier, Sutch said.
"Consistency is so hard, yet so important," Sutch said later over a roast beef lunch at a Paramount coffee shop. "Discipline has to be fair to work."
Bell Gardens Coach Dave Newell said: "If you look at Paramount on film, it is very simple. What (Sutch) has is discipline and tremendous athletic speed, and he is able to get the best out of the talent he has."
If pulling starters at the half last year was a noble thing to do, it wasn't always the right thing statistically, Sutch admits. Running back Leon Neal, a returning starter who was an All-Southern Section selection as a junior, carried the football only 100 times in 10 regular season games.
"Could you imagine what his statistics would have been if we had left him in (each) game?" Sutch asked.
Neal, who gained 1,729 yards last year, ran for 59 yards in eight carries against Bell Gardens. But he threw several key blocks for some of those other players who were backups last year.
The Southern Section titles served as a rallying point for many in Paramount, which was in physical and economic dilapidation in the late 1970s but rebounded to win an All-American City award two years ago.
Explained Sutch: "The football team has brought a lot of pride to this city, and (the city) has paid us back."
City officials bought championship rings for the players last year. Renovation of the lights and bleachers at the football field, scheduled to begin shortly, is being paid for completely by donations, Sutch said.
Sutch, Jim Monico and Rick DeCicco joined Paramount High as assistants in 1975 and worked with veteran Coach Tom Davies at a time when the team had won one game in five years. Sutch, who had been a successful sophomore coach at Long Beach Wilson, said: "We were three young pups with an older head coach, and we thought we knew everything," Sutch said.
Player morale was in disarray, and teachers bet on how badly the varsity would be defeated. But in 1979, Paramount won the Suburban League title.
Sutch left to become coach at Workman High in Industry in 1980 and Paramount, which was moved into the tough San Gabriel Valley League, had 1-8 and 5-4 records. When Davies took an administrative post in 1982, Sutch became the Pirate head coach, rejoining Monico, his longtime friend. DeCicco left after the 1975 season but returned this year. Glen Kaskela and Mike Giers are also on the staff.
"What the success with football has done for the school is incredible," Paramount Principal Maureen Sanders said. "It has been great for our self-esteem."
Academics have also benefited, Sanders said. Paramount established an early-morning tutoring program for athletes. Others are also picking up their books more. "The students have really, really pulled together because they have realized that they can make a difference (in their lives,)" Sanders said.