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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL

Hollywood Sheiks are ready for their close-up

At Lana Turner and Cher's alma mater, the football team may be too young to remember the Gipper. But they'll win one for Coach Sandoval, who has rallied players to their first 3-0 start in 19 years.

September 25, 2009|Ben Bolch

The school's main office has a framed Life magazine cover showing former student Lana Turner walking her dog.

Its hallways are speckled with painted crimson stars featuring the names of other famous alumni: Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Sarah Jessica Parker, the list goes on.

But the biggest luminary on campus these days might be a bearded, thirtysomething man who doesn't exactly rule Tinseltown.

He is, however, trying to fashion a Hollywood ending.

Ceasar Sandoval has coached Hollywood High's football team to its first 3-0 start since 1990, a glittering accomplishment at a school known for excellence on the stage and failure on the gridiron.

The Sheiks had a 27-game losing streak in the 1980s, a 19-game losing streak in the 1990s and a City Section-record 42-game losing streak earlier this decade.

"The attitude was, we show up when we want to, we practice when we want to, and let's see what we can do on Fridays," said Walter Tovar, a 1997 Hollywood graduate who now coaches the team's wide receivers. "Usually, it was a loss."

Not anymore. The Sheiks have won their last four games, going back to 2008, and are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1998, the school's only winning season in the last 31 years.

When Sandoval, in his third year as head coach, recently strolled the campus at Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue, one teacher sidled up to him and said, "I've been waiting a long time for this."

"Every day at practice," said senior guard and linebacker George Mendoza, "we just look forward to making history, going 4-0, 5-0, 6-0 and so on."

Sandoval hasn't faced some of the constraints that plagued predecessor Jeff Trovatten, such as a less than supportive administration, rampant turnover among assistant coaches and year-round school that deprived coaches of teaching opportunities in the summer. But the opening of nearby Bernstein High last year has reduced the available pool of players.

Players said Sandoval had transformed the losing culture by instilling a family atmosphere. Players gather for team dinners once a week and go camping in the summer. The coaches also banded together to paint the locker room in the school's colors.

"Anything we can do to make the kids feel important, it's huge to how they perform on the football field," Sandoval said.

The Sheiks displayed unity during a season-opening 14-10 victory over Los Angeles Manual Arts. The Toilers drove deep into Hollywood territory several times late in the game but were repeatedly rebuffed.

After a 27-9 victory over Palisades that marked the Sheiks' first home night game with permanent lights, Hollywood fell into a 14-0 hole against South Gate. The turning point came when Sandoval addressed his players at halftime.

"He didn't yell at them," Hollywood Principal Jaime Morales said. "He just said, 'You have been trained. You know what to do.' "

Utilizing a no-huddle offense, the Sheiks rolled to five second-half touchdowns on the way to a 34-21 triumph.

The Sheiks can go 4-0 with a victory at home Friday against Van Nuys Grant (0-2), but a history lesson might be in order before anyone goes Hollywood.

The last time the Sheiks won their first three games, they lost their next six. The school's yearbook, the Poinsettia, attributed the slide "to lots of bad breaks from the referees."

Only in Hollywood.

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ben.bolch@latimes.com

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