In 1984, Ron Palmer made a rare basketball coaching move by leaving Long Beach Poly High to take over as head coach at Cal State Long Beach. His credentials as a high school coach were impressive, amassing a 270-51 record in 11 years at Poly, including nine Moore League titles and three CIF Southern Section championships. However, as a Division I college coach, Palmer had his troubles.
Palmer lasted only three seasons at Cal State Long Beach before stepping down with a 23-64 record. While he was away, Poly's basketball program slipped a bit under Coach Chris Kinder, who had a 79-52 record with the Jackrabbits but failed to maintain Palmer's playoff pace, advancing only once to the semifinals and winning two Moore League titles in five seasons.
After leaving Cal State Long Beach in 1987, Palmer was out of basketball for two seasons until he returned to Poly last year to replace Kinder. It is a return that has brought new life to the Jackrabbits.
In his first season back with Poly, Palmer led the Jackrabbits to a Southern Section 5-AA Division title and a 28-3 record. This season, which was expected to be a rebuilding one, Poly is 13-2. Last Saturday, the Jackrabbits defeated Artesia, 53-49, in the championship game of the Artesia Tournament.
"My (Cal State Long Beach) experience was positive because of my growth as a basketball coach," said Palmer, who has 311 career high school victories. "The name of the game at the college level is recruiting, and I had no idea it was as difficult to attract top players. If I had to do it all over again, I don't know if I'd want the headaches.
"I'm happy to be back at Poly because I'm well established at the high school level. I sat out and watched a lot of basketball and I couldn't stand it. I had to get back coaching because it is in my blood."
Earlier this season, Palmer reached a milestone with his 300th career victory in only his 13th season. He is proud of the accomplishment but passes the credit along to his players.
"I'm pleased with the record, but I realize that I've had a lot of talented players come through the program," Palmer said. "Everyone has goals set, and 300 wins is a milestone. I would like to get up to maybe 500 wins before I leave the program."
Upon his return to the high school level, Palmer said he has noticed several changes.
"The competition is tougher than when I first started because there are more talented ballplayers in Southern California," he said. "Before, there was always Crenshaw and usually one other City team and then Verbum Dei and St. Bernard. Then, in the 1980s, Mater Dei came along and became a force. Now, there are good programs all over. Look at Artesia. It's program was non-existent a few years back."
Even though Palmer said Poly's opponents have improved since his first tenure, the Jackrabbits are still winning with the same regularity. With only two experienced players from last season's team, Poly has reloaded with balance, headed by UCLA-bound Tyus Edney. After winning consecutive tournaments the last two weeks, Poly is a favorite to win the competitive Moore League.
Edney, a 5-foot-10 point guard, has been a force for Poly this season. He was named MVP in both of the Jackrabbits' tournament victories earlier this month. Although known mostly for his passing and ballhandling skills last season, Edney, who is averaging 18 points and seven assists, has supplied the Jackrabbits with needed scoring punch.
"Edney is a special player, who probably during my time at Poly is one of the best to come through the school," Palmer said. "He is the most productive guard I've ever had. He has surpassed everyone in stats. This season, he has accepted the role to do more scoring and has come through. In games that we needed him, he has done it. Twice, he has scored 31 points in big games."
Another senior who has played a big role for Poly is Yikeem Craddock, a 6-3 forward, who averages seven rebounds a game.
Poly will get a chance Saturday to show if it still belongs among the top teams in the Southland when it plays Artesia in a rematch at Cal State Long Beach.
L.A. Washington (11-2) and Reseda Cleveland (10-3) will meet in the final of the Los Angeles am/pm Shootout Friday night at 7:30 at L.A. City College. The consolation championship game, featuring Lincoln vs. Locke, starts at 6 p.m. Friday's games finish the 32-team tournament, which started two weeks ago. Both teams are surprise finalists, emerging from a field that included Manual Arts, Morningside and La Canada. Continental Cablevision will air both games Monday night at 8:30.