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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

It's elementary for this Coach K

Larry Kaupang balances his duties as a fifth-grade teacher and coach of the successful La Mirada High boys' basketball team.

February 20, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

At La Pluma Elementary School in La Mirada, Larry Kaupang enjoys the reaction of his fifth-grade students when they get to dissect frogs.

"Some of them are squeamish, but most are excited," he said.

By afternoon, Kaupang switches to serious mode, arriving at nearby La Mirada High, where he's the head coach for the 25-3 boys' basketball team.

"Somebody passes gas in practice and they're laughing, and I mention that's something my fifth-graders would do," he said.

Welcome to the strange but invigorating world of a man who by day teaches science, math and social studies to 10- and 11-year-olds and by late afternoon, is training 17- and 18-year-olds on how to play a game with many highs and lows.

Kaupang loves his dual responsibilities so much that when asked if he were forced to choose one over the other, he said, "I don't know if I could make that decision."

"Mr. K," as he is called by his fifth-graders, has been teaching in elementary school for 13 years.

"I love teaching fifth-graders," he said. "They listen to you."

He has been the head coach at La Mirada for three years, where he has coached two of his sons. The Matadores, seeded No. 2 in the Southern Section Division II-A playoffs, defeated Saugus, 78-52, in their opener Wednesday. They play Yucaipa tonight in a second-round game.

"We really do have a great bunch of kids," he said.

Kaupang raves about his team's standout player, 6-foot-8 USC-bound Derrick Williams, who's averaging 24.2 points and 9.0 rebounds.

"He's been phenomenal," Kaupang said. "He steps up in all the big games and takes on a leadership role. Every game, something he does, you go, 'That was fun to watch.' He's become more of a complete player."

La Mirada's players were naturally skeptical when they found out their coach was a fifth-grade teacher, even though Kaupang had been an assistant coach in the program.

"Nobody has seen a fifth-grade teacher as their coach," Williams said.

But Kaupang quickly earned their respect with his game plans and leadership skills, and he has adjusted to his daily extremes, arriving at La Pluma at 6 a.m. to work on his teaching plans, beginning classroom duties at 8:10 a.m. when the bell rings and driving three blocks to the high school at 2:27 p.m. for basketball practice.

"I wouldn't say you get to relax," he said. "It's just different."

Among the differences, Kaupang said, "My players won't cry when I yell. My fifth-graders might."

His high school players know how to tease him, reminding him, "We're not elementary-school students. You don't have to talk to us like that."

But the fifth-graders give him great pleasure. There was the student who was having a difficult time at home and then was given a couple of T-shirts from the La Mirada team.

"He wore it every day and started doing his homework," Kaupang said.

He marvels at the sophistication and technological savvy of fifth-graders.

"It's amazing the things they can do," he said.

Teaching science is his favorite subject because of the students' excitement in discovering something new. Writing is the most difficult subject to teach because "fifth-graders are at that 'I-can't-think-of-anything-to-write' stage."

And yet, at the end of another grueling day, Kaupang hardly shows any sign of exhaustion. He's on the court directing his high school players in practice and appreciating every minute of it.

"When it's something you enjoy, I don't think you get tired," he said. "To me, it's not work. I just enjoy coming here."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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latimes.com

/high schools

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Video on the web

Larry Kaupang talks about his dual responsibilities as fifth-grade teacher and high school basketball coach.

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