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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Poly Coach Knows Priorities

November 07, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

There may be no high school football coach in Southern California who's a bigger target for fan abuse than Raul Lara of Long Beach Poly.

Poly fans expect their team to win every game and every championship, and when it doesn't happen, they want their coach fired. In the Internet chat rooms for high school football, Lara's critics unleash the kind of venom usually reserved for a college or NFL coach.

Lara, 37, understood the challenge when he became coach in 2001.

"Of course, I knew," he said. "I'd have to be blind. I was Jerry Jaso's assistant. It is overwhelming in a sense. There's a lot of responsibilities."

Lara's teams haven't been perfect, which is why he gets skewered. In 2001, with a team for the ages, he went 12-1 and won the Division I championship. But people still blame him for the Jackrabbits' 29-15 loss to Concord De La Salle in a game matching the top two teams in the country.

Last season, Poly lost again to De La Salle and was beaten in the Division I semifinals by Santa Ana Mater Dei, 21-20.

This season, Poly (6-2) lost to Clovis East and missed a two-point conversion in the final 2 1/2 minutes in a one-point loss to Mission Viejo. The team is ranked No. 1 in the Division I coaches' poll, but there's a sense the critics are waiting to devour Lara the moment he messes up.

"Bring them on" is his attitude.

"I think we're two plays from being undefeated," he said. "I could care less what the critics say. I'm worried about these kids. I'm a person who grew up in Long Beach and has been associated with Long Beach Poly practically all my life.

"Yeah, for a lot of people, the focus is on winning, winning, winning, but I think the real focus is on what the kids are going to get out of this in the long run and how are they going to be productive citizens when they get older."

There isn't a coach in America who wins every game -- except maybe Bob Ladouceur of De La Salle, whose teams have won 146 consecutive football games dating to 1992.

Lara knows he will be judged at Poly by wins and losses, and so far, his career record is 29-5 going into tonight's game against Lakewood with the Moore League title on the line. His teams have lost some big games, and he said he's as frustrated as the fans.

"I'm getting tired of playing big games and not winning," he said. "To me, the learning part is getting over that hump and winning and not just hearing, 'You looked good, you did well, your program is top notch.' "

Lara is a full-time probation officer Saturday to Tuesday morning, then devotes the rest of his time to coaching. While fans might question his strategies, they should understand that coaching at the high school level is different than coaching in college or the NFL. People aren't supposed to get fired for one or two losses. They get fired for not teaching good ethics, for ignoring discipline problems and for lack of commitment.

Principal Shawn Ashley expects the Poly football coach to lead the program to lots of victories, but equally important is someone who's capable of producing good citizens and preparing players for situations beyond football. Lara is not only winning plenty of games but also setting high standards. How do I know?

Last week, during a league game against Long Beach Jordan, standout defensive back Rodney Van and his secondary teammates were embarrassed on the opening possession when Jordan scored on a long pass play. Van, who has committed to UCLA, came off the field upset. He sat on the bench pouting and ignoring his teammates before tossing his helmet.

Immediately, a Poly assistant coach confronted Van.

"Pick up your helmet," he said. Van was pulled from the game on the next series, proving that Lara and his coaching staff are more interested in teaching their players right from wrong than simply winning games.

With the exceptional talent at Poly, which has won 47 consecutive league games, Lara could schedule easy nonleague opponents just to go undefeated, but he has learned there is no challenge in winning games by large margins.

"It's not fun coaching when you're always beating somebody 50-0," he said. "The fun is when you're playing a good school and it comes down to the last play."

Poly is scheduled to play Clovis East and Mission Viejo again next season and has inquired about playing Mater Dei. Lara isn't afraid of defeat or the pressure of expectations.

"There is a lot of pressure, but I'm driven by pressure," he said.

After the heartbreaking defeat to Mission Viejo, one father, whose son plays linebacker, went up to Ashley and demanded a coaching change.

"This is the second time we've been out-coached and we need to do something about it," the parent told Ashley.

"I said, 'We're going to change the linebackers,' " Ashley said. "I didn't hear anything again."

With Poly having produced more NFL players than any high school in America, Ashley understands what a Poly football coach must endure.

"It is a special position, and there isn't anyone in the stands who doesn't think they [can make] smarter moves," he said.

Poly is a tough place to coach, but Lara is going to succeed because he cares about his players first and his critics last.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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